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Posts from the ‘Emotions’ Category

Adversity Affects Learning

David was a 5th grader at an elementary school in East Oakland (California), where I worked as a special education teacher¹. The school was located in a neighborhood greatly affected by crime, drugs and gangs. Many students at the school had been exposed to violence and abuse, and most students had some kind of psychological trauma. David lived with two siblings and his mom, who was addicted to drugs. I saw David twice a week to work on his reading. The minute he walked into my room, I could clearly see if he was doing well or having a hard day. When he felt defeated, frustrated or pushed in any way, he would shut down and not respond to any verbal communication.

In the US, 34.8 million children are affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), which are stressful or traumatic events that children experience before age 18, such as violence at home, neglect, abuse, or having a parent with mental illness or substance dependence. They harm children’s developing brains, leading to changes in how they respond to stress, and damaging their immune system with effects that manifest well into adulthood.

In my new SEL book, Teaching with the Heart in Mind, I discuss how a high or frequent exposure to ACEs can dysregulate children’s stress response and affect the chemical and physical structures of a child’s brain. I also discuss how the right kind of support and care can mitigate the impact of toxic stress in children, and help them bounce back. Here’s a snippet from chapter 3 – Adversity affects learning. If you want to receive these excerpts directly in your email, sign up  for updates or send me a message. I love hearing from you!

You may be wondering how many students in your classroom have had or are currently experiencing trauma and toxic stress. In certain cases, you may receive information from the school’s counselor or psychologist or, if the student has one, from their Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). However, in many cases students don’t share what it is happening at home; they may fear harsh punishment from their caregiver or being told they are lying. In other cases, they may not be able to put into words their experience. Therefore, you might have students in your classroom that have ACEs and you don’t know about them. The good news is that trauma-informed practices benefit all students, so you don’t need to know for sure if students are experiencing toxic stress to embrace them.

When I was studying to become a special education teacher, there was a big push to adopt/generalize the use of strategies to support learning differences. Until that point, teachers used certain tools with special education students only, believing that the other students did not need them. Well, teachers started to realize that many of these strategies were actually beneficial not only to students who had been diagnosed with a disability, but also to other students as well. The same is true for trauma-informed practices: you don’t need to use these practices with those students who you know for sure have been exposed to adversity. Trauma-informed practices will support all students in your classroom.

Create physically and emotionally safe spaces. For learning to take place, a child needs to feel safe, physically and emotionally. While most classrooms are physically safe, many classrooms could do more to create an emotionally healthy environment. When students feel shamed, intimated or scared on a regular basis, they become disengaged and less motivated about school. This disengagement may contribute to poor attendance, grade repetition and discipline referrals, which, in turn, may lead to school dropout. In other words, when schools do not foster the appropriate conditions for learning, including positive relationships between and among students and adults, schools can actually harm students.

As we saw in chapter 1, it is fine to experience a wide range of different emotions in school; however, learning environments cannot be built on frustration or fear, because they cause the brain to go into “flight or fight” response. For a child who has experienced ACEs, it is important to encounter an environment of respect and care, establishing healthy boundaries and expectations that are shared by students and teachers.

Do you want to be in the loop about the book? Sign up for updates or follow #teachingheartinmind on Twitter. I’ll be sharing another excerpt covering key aspects of SEL implementation. Stay tuned!


¹ The student’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.


Center for Youth Wellness. Aces and Chronic Stress. Retrieved from

Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development1. Applied Developmental Science, 1-31. DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2017.1398650

Let It Be

Emotions are an important part of being human. We don’t want to ignore or suppress them because they provide valuable data about what is happening inside ourselves and the world around us. Yes, I know, I have said this before. However, with the holidays around the corner, there is this notion that we must feel a certain way… mostly happy, joyful and excited. Well, what if that’s not the case for you or your students? Read more

Gratitude for Self

Did you know that people who experience gratitude cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health, including lower blood pressure and better immune function? Gratitude is the quality of being thankful, the readiness to show appreciation and return kindness to others. In the US, Thanksgiving is the holiday that celebrates gratitude and encourages us to be appreciative. Students and teachers may spend time together creating gratitude quilts, writing gratitude letters or sharing a gratitude meal (check out Stone Soup: a lesson in sharing). However, there is a lesser known form of gratitude that we often miss: gratitude for self. Read more

Leading with EQ

I have been working with an amazing group of aspiring principals in New Orleans this past week. They are enrolled in a leadership program, the Summer Principals Academy at Columbia University, which incorporates emotional intelligence (EQ) training and a daily guided mindfulness practice. We have been learning how to use our emotions to know ourselves better, establish positive relationships and lead schools wholeheartedly. Witnessing their growth and “aha” moments is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Read more

3 Key Lessons on Empathy

I did the last internship for my teaching credential in a rural town in Nicaragua, volunteering at a local NGO – Los Pipitos – that supported children with disabilities. During my time there, I worked alongside a promotora de salud (community health professional), Martha; the most patient human being I have ever met, I learned everything I know about empathy from her. Read more

Are You Listening?

When I was a kid, I became fascinated with the story of Momo by Michael Ende. Have you read it? Momo is a little girl of mysterious origin with an extraordinary ability to listen – really listen. I remember reading the book and wondering, how does she do it? Can I really listen that way too?

She listened in a way that made slow-witted people have flashes of inspiration. It wasn’t that she actually said anything or asked questions that put such ideas into their heads. She simply sat there and listened with the upmost attention and sympathy, fixing them with her big, dark eyes, and they suddenly became aware of ideas whose existence they had never suspected. Momo could listen in such a way that worried and indecisive people knew their own minds from one moment to the next, or shy people felt suddenly confident and at ease, or down-hearted people felt happy and hopeful. Read more

Focus on Yourself to Nurture Positive Relationships

The relationships that children and youth establish with adults are critical for a healthy social and emotional development. When students and teachers establish positive, caring relationships, students are more likely to use their teachers as resource to solve problems, engage in learning activities, and better navigate the demands of school (Williford & Sanger Wolcott, 2015). Researchers have found that high-quality relationships between students and teachers are linked with students’ academic and social-emotional outcomes. Read more

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