Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘SEL’

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

The Power of Relationships

Think about your relationship with a good friend or a close colleague; you may push each other to do better, seek comfort when you are struggling or simply share a good laugh. As social beings, human relationships are at the core of a healthy development. This is true for all—children, youth and adults. From the infant who is starting to develop a bond with their caregiver to the elderly person, nurturing our human capacity to form and maintain relationships is essential to developing a positive sense of wellbeing. Read more

Teaching with the Heart in Mind

You may have been wondering why I haven’t been publishing lately. Well, there is a good reason—I am writing a book! I feel excited, scared and proud all at the same time! My new book, Teaching with the Heart in Mind, is a practical guide to nurturing Social Emotional Learning in the classroom. It will cover many of the topics and tools that I have discussed in this blog (emotions in learning, importance of relationships), and some new ones (how adversity affects learning, teachers’ resilience). Read more

Creating Milestone Experiences

During this week, students in Kindergarten and 1st grade at my daughter’s school participate in a special, off campus trip that is unique to their grade level. These trips provide experiential learning opportunities for students tied to the school’s core curriculum. As the students get older, these milestone trips increase in complexity (and days away from home), challenging students in different ways. The classroom teacher reminded us, parents, how this was a special moment for students to experience by themselves. So, I will have to (patiently) wait until she gets home to find out how everything went! Read more

Taking SEL Home

When I pick up my daughter from school, I often ask her these questions: What made you laugh? Who did you help? Were you brave today? Her answers give me insights into how her day went, what she enjoyed doing and how she felt at school. She doesn’t always want to talk about how school went, but it is important for me as a parent to initiate that conversation and create the time for us to check-in. Sometimes she will ask back, how was your day Mom? Read more

Where did trust go? Strategies to earn your students’ trust

After several months into the school year, you might find that you have established positive relationships with most of your students… but maybe not all of them. Although, as educators, we care deeply about our students, there are certain relationships that may be more challenging and require a bit more work. In my experience, there is one ingredient that allows for honest communication, a sense of respect towards each other, maybe even a shared purpose. Do you know what it is? It’s trust. Trust is at the heart of any successful relationship. Read more

Preparing for Difficult Conversations

There is no education without ethics. This is the way my former Philosophy professor, Joan-Carles Mèlich, started each class. As I was getting trained to become a teacher, this was a powerful reminder of the responsibility I had as an educator with my students. I had to carefully consider how my relationship with children and youth could serve as a tool for positive change or, on the contrary, as a way to maintain the status quo. As educators, we have choices in the ways we discuss expressions of racial and religious hatred, like the recent events in Charlottesville (US), or analyze the response to NFL players kneeling during the US anthem. There is no education without ethics. Read more

%d bloggers like this: