Discipline with Dignity: Trauma-Informed Classroom Management

Classroom management is the part of teaching that is invisible when it is working well, and highly visible when we and our students are struggling. Sometimes it may feel like herding cats:

Classroom Management’s purpose is to “provide structure while helping students develop autonomy, awareness and self-regulation skills” (Emerich France, 2018).

Traditional classroom management theories rely on teachers viewing student behaviour as a matter of choices or intentional defiance. As a result, traditional solutions have been a list of consequences and rewards. While consequences may be a part of a classroom management plan, if the goal of classroom management is to have students understand themselves and self-regulate, teachers and students need to first identify the causes of behaviours, attempt to prevent triggers and increase self-awareness.

General principles of Discipline with Dignity (Curwin, Mendler, & Mendler, 2018) are:

General Principles

This perspective of classroom management allows us to link the effects of trauma and brain development to understanding some of the underlying causes of student behaviours. Classroom management is founded on knowing our students and building relationships with them.

Basic Needs that Drive Behaviour

Curwin, Mendler, and Mendler (2018) and Dr. Martin Brokenleg (Circle of courage, 1990) have identified what our and our students’ basic human needs are in order to be healthy and whole.

Curwin, Mendler, and Mendler Dr. Martin Brokenleg
Identity – “how we view ourselves and how we feel about ourselves”
Attention – “the need to be acknowledged by others in a way that makes us feel that we matter” Generosity – to give our knowledge, skills, insight, experience, and resources to others; receiving a sense of purpose from strengthening the community
Connection – “our need to feel that we belong to something that matters to us” Belonging – to feel valued, affirmed and significant within the group; believing in the importance of a shared purpose; to identify with shared goals
Competence – “feeling that we know how to do something” Mastery – to develop abilities, skills, and knowledge in order to take risks, to try new things and learn from others; to embrace challenges and learning
Control – “the desire to make decisions that count, to have real choices, to control our environment” Independence – to feel in control of our learning; to have a sense of competent autonomy and to contribute to responsibility

Saskatchewan teachers and educational assistants used a Circle of Courage graphic organizer to brainstorm what they need to keep in mind to create a learning environment that fosters a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity in their students:

Circle of Courage

A school environment that provides opportunities for students to have their needs met is part of a “prevention mindset” (Curwin, Mendler, & Mendler, p. 61). Looking at prevention from the student perspective, appropriate behaviour is generally achieved when students:

  • Feel connected to the teacher, one another, and the curriculum.
  • Believe that success is attainable with reasonable effort.
  • Feel respected by being heard; feel teachers strongly care about them in personal ways.
  • Are given responsibility, especially in helping other children. This involves giving appropriate choices throughout the day.
  • Look forward to sanctioned moments of joy and laughter every day.
  • Believe that what is being taught is relevant.

Activating Peers as Learning Resources

Dylan Wiliam has identified five strategies for Formative Assessment, which increase student engagement and achievement. Formative Assessment Strategies

Wiliam’s work guides our instruction in many ways, including how to activate learners as instructional resources. Collaborative learning that encourages group goals and individual accountability is more powerful than simply having students work on tasks in a group. This group work increases student sense of belonging and provides a space for generosity within a community of learners.

Cooperative Learning

Wiliam (2011) identifies why students benefit from helping their peers:

  • they are working towards a common goal and they benefit from the efforts of all, resulting in increased motivation.
  • they care about their group members, resulting in social cohesion.
  • they understand and can address the difficulties their peers are having, resulting in personalization.
  • thinking together brings clarity, resulting in cognitive elaboration.

Assessment Strategies

Wiliam writes about a number of strategies that can enhance peer support of learning within a classroom.

Peer Support Strategies

In his book Embedding Formative Assessment, Wiliam suggests many strategies, including:

  • Peer Evaluation of Homework – The class or teacher create criteria (rubric) for the work. Who is assessing the work changes and is not announced until the homework is complete. Evaluators may be: Self, Other – individual or group or Teacher
  • Two Stars and a Wish – student feedback on other students’ work – 2 positive qualities and a suggestion for improvement; Teacher needs to instruct students on what quality feedback looks like. Sentence starters can be useful to give to students in advance.
  • Preflight Checklist – When there are specific requirements or features of a piece of student work, this list is checked by a peer prior to the work being handed in. If there are pieces missing that were on the checklist, the peer is the one held accountable.
  • Group-Based Test Prep – Within a group, each student is assigned a different part of a unit to review. They prepare and present their review to their group. Peers assess the review using coloured cups (red – not as good as I would have done; yellow – about the same as I would have done; green – better than I would have done).

Teaching and using group work goes beyond learning styles, and can enhance student motivation, engagement and resilience.

Stress Behaviours

(Adapted from The Mehrit Centre’s Infographic on Understanding Stress Behaviour for Teachers)

Brain research has shown that there are differences between stress behaviours and misbehaviour. If we treat them in the same way, it can be hard on our students and hard on ourselves.

Stress Behaviour

The 5 Primary Domains of Stress

There are many different reasons why a student might show signs of stress behaviour. These are linked to Shanker’s five domains of self-regulation.

5 Domains of Self-Reg

Signs of Stress Behaviour

Stress behaviours (Shanker, 2018) are biological in nature and neither intentional nor conscious choices on the part of students. These might include:

  1. Heightened impulsivity
  2. Difficulty ignoring distractions
  3. Problems in mood (sees everything negatively)
  4. Erratic mood swings
  5. Trouble listening
  6. What she is saying doesn’t make sense

Dealing with Stress Behaviour in Students

When a child exhibits stress behaviour, what do we do as educators? Shanker (2018) suggests that we:

Dealing with Stress

Along with specific calming strategies that can help students, include mindfulness strategies and ways to integrate social-emotional learning throughout the day.

Effects of Early Trauma

“Trauma has a powerful capacity to shape a child’s physical, emotional, and intellectual development, especially when the trauma is experienced in early life” (JBS International and Georgetown University National Technical Assistance Centre).

Three Types of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences)


There are significant impacts of ACEs on individual health outcomes. Brain science has determined that ACEs disrupt neurodevelopment, which leads to social, emotional and cognitive impairment, adoption of health-risk behaviours, disease, disability, and social problems and eventually can lead to early death.


Continued exposure to trauma creates an environment filled with relentless fear, resulting in the development of a self-defence mechanism in a child’s brain that requires a fight, flight or freeze response. Stress responses are maintained due to:

  • A persistent fear response that ‘wears out’ neural pathways;
  • Hyperarousal that causes children to overreact to non-threatening triggers;
  • Dissociation from the traumatic event in which the child shuts down emotionally; and
  • Disruptions in emotional attachment, which can be detrimental to learning.

(JBS International and Georgetown University National Technical Assistance Centre).

Intergenerational and Historical Trauma

The Georgetown University National Technical Assistance Centre for Children’s Mental Health has identified two types of trauma that may have an impact on children in schools:

  • Intergenerational trauma results when disturbing experiences have not been addressed and their emotional and behavioural legacy is passed down from parents to their children. Parents who experienced persistent trauma in childhood may struggle with their own ability to express empathy, compassion, and self-regulation. Unresolved trauma may make it difficult for parents to build trusting relationships and healthy attachments. This trauma is then transmitted to future generations.
  • Historical trauma goes beyond a single family to a community caused by historical, systematic abuse and injustice. In additional to family-specific intergenerational trauma, historical trauma may also result in shame and loss of culture and identity. The legacy of historical trauma can result in “repression, dissociation, denial, alcoholism, depression, doubt, helplessness, and devaluation of self and culture”.

Brain Malleability

While trauma affects brain development, causing structural and hormonal changes, the malleability of the human brain brings us hope. Because the brain can heal, and new neuropathways can be developed, teachers and schools can impact the long-term social, emotional and physical impacts of trauma. Trauma-informed schools are those where the school climate, instructional designs, positive behavioural supports, and policies are created so that traumatized students have what they need to achieve academic and social competence (Craig, 2016).

PBIS – Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports SEL – Social Emotional Learning
The goal of PBIS is to create a positive school climate, in which students learn and grow. A process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Dr. Bruce Perry has done significant research in the area of mitigating the impact of trauma on children.

Dr. Perry contributes to the Child Trauma Academy, which makes a number of free resources available.

Solutions in classrooms directed at brain stem activity can help create new pathways in the brain’s cortical areas. These include

  • patterned rhythmic activities
  • walking
  • dancing
  • singing
  • meditative breathing
  • create a calmer cognitive state so higher order thinking can occur
  • scaffold new information on prior knowledge
  • use classroom discourse purposefully
  • peer collaboration
  • provide direct instruction

Instruction and school environments that provide calming opportunities can help children learn to be more self-aware and foster their own emotion regulation, which then impacts the behaviour-consequence cycle.

As teachers, when we understand the underlying causes of student behaviour, we can not only respond, we can avoid triggers. Classroom Management is more than just the strategies we use, it is the relationship and understanding of the children we teach in order to help children build new neural pathways, understand their own behaviour and learn to self-regulate.

When and Where to Refer Students?

Sometimes, we might recognize that one of our students requires additional supports. Central Office personnel or support teachers may be able to help you assess where your students are at. For parents, Amy Morin writes about some of the indicators that a child might require targetted services in her blog post “When Should Parents Seek Help for a Child’s Behavior Problems?”. Supports from outside of your school system may be available through your regional health authority, which is listed on the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s Website. In the Prairie North Health Region, for instance, there are a number of youth-focussed supports in North Battleford.

Works Cited

Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (1990). Circle of courage. Retrieved February 14, 2014, from Reclaiming youth international: http://www.reclaiming.com/content/aboutcircleofcourage

Craig, S. E. (2016). Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Student Lives K-5. New York: Teachers College Press.

Curwin, R. L., Mendler, A. N., & Mendler, B. D. (2018). Discipline with Dignity: How to Build Responsibility, Relationships, and Respect in Your Classroom. Alexandria: ASCD.

Emerich France, P. (2018, September). A Healthy Ecosystem for Classroom Management. Educational Leadership, 76(1). Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept18/vol76/num01/A-Healthy-Ecosystem-for-Classroom-Management.aspx

JBS International and Georgetown University National Technical Assistance Centre. (n.d.). Issue Brief 1: Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Retrieved from https://gucchdtacenter.georgetown.edu/TraumaInformedCare/issueBrief1_UnderstandingImpactTrauma.pdf

Shanker, S. (2018). (The MEHRIT Centre) Retrieved August 18, 2018, from Shanker Self-Reg: https://self-reg.ca/

Sousa, D. A. (2009). How the Brain Influences Behaviour: Management Strategies for Every Classroom. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, Indiana, United States of America: Solution Tree Press.

Coaching – The Problem with Helping


MediumSquareLogoEmbedded coaches and mentors are a powerful model of professional learning. As colleagues, they work collaboratively with peers to support and extend professional knowledge. Part of working as embedded coaches is to ensure a shared vision and understanding of WHY coaches exist and their impact on teaching and learning.

Simon Sinek describes the “Golden Circle”, which has us begin with WHY, and then move to HOW and WHAT. The specific strategies, processes, and structures we use are based on that why.

Based on this theory, coaches can use a Thinking Map to brainstorm together their impact on students, what teachers might do in order to have this impact, what they are doing to support teacher growth and the barriers they are experiencing in their work. From this brainstorm, coaches can define their role collaboratively.

One concern often surfaced by coaches and mentors is that they struggle with beginning a helping relationship with colleagues. How do we start without judging colleagues? How do we ensure that teachers don’t feel that they are being judged as ‘broken’? As helper-leaders, it is sometimes difficult to know how to start.

Simple Truths About Helping

Jim Knight (Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction, 2011) has identified Five Simple Truths About Helping. These truths might be some of the barriers you are feeling as a coach or mentor with colleagues.

Simple Truth: People often don’t know that they need help

“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.” ~ G. K. Chesterson.Six stages of change

The first step needed for change to occur is to recognize that we need to make a change. As professionals, it is often the case that when we realize that there is knowledge we need to have or a problem we need to solve, we will seek solutions for ourselves. The issue with precontemplation is that we might be blind to the learning or change that we most need to move forward.

Simple Truth: If people feel “one down”, they will resist

Issues related to status in helping relationships are often unanticipated. Coaches often see themselves as helpers rather than having a status that is more or higher than their teacher colleagues.

The very act of helping, Schein (2009) says, puts the coach or mentor “one-up” in a relationship. A teacher, either consciously or subconsciously, will resist being “one down”.

Helping situations are intrinsically unbalanced… Emotionally and socially, when you ask for help you are putting yourself “one down.” It is a temporary loss of status and self-esteem not to know what to do next or be unable to do it (p. 32).

Coaches who are able to recognize that a colleague needs to maintain status will, as Schein says, “equalibrate” their relationship. This involves downplaying their own status and elevating the teacher by calling attention to insights and teaching skills and downplaying their own status and success.

Simple Truth: Criticism is taken personally

“Teacher identities are wrapped up in their perception of their ability to teach.” ~ Jim Knight

Our perceptions and stories of ourselves can be biased slightly in our favour. The narrative in our head protects our self-esteem to explain why we are not meeting our goals. A targeted conversation about teaching practice is not uncomfortable because of what another person may think, it might be uncomfortable because we might have to change what WE think.

Simple Truth: If someone else does all the thinking for them, people will resist

Teachers are knowledge workers, they think for a living. Not only do they think to do their jobs, but they are also creating a learning environment in which their students think. Much like learning in a classroom, professional learning needs to be at a level of appropriate challenge. We know that telling student learners what to do and how to do it stifles the joy of learning. The same is true for adult learners.

Simple Truth: People are not motivated by other people’s goals

“Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others can sometimes have dangerous side effects.” ~ Daniel Pink

Research shows that people performing algorithmic tasks, those which you follow a set of steps down a single path to one conclusion, may respond well to extrinsic rewards and punishments. Teaching, however, is a considered to be a heuristic task. Heuristic tasks are those which there is no single algorithm and act as an experiment to create novel solutions. External rewards are not helpful with heuristic tasks, and as Jim Knight notes from Daniel Pink’s research (2009) “they can be “devastating for heuristic ones” (p. 30) because they reduce intrinsic motivation and the value people assign for each task” (2011, p. 27).

According to Pink (2009), there are three factors that can help to motivate people doing heuristic tasks or work:

  1. Mastery: Doing a job well
  2. Autonomy: freedom to choose goals and how to achieve them
  3. Purpose: doing work that is making a difference, being part of something larger than ourselves

The Partnership Principles

So, what can help with helping? Jim Knight (2011) identifies the Partnership Principles, which are embedded in many of his books about coaching, including his Partnership Learning Fieldbook. Knight’s Partnership Learning Approach (2011) is a collaborative conversation between professionals. Unlike cognitive coaching, partners both contribute to the goals and outcome of the conversation.

7 Principles

“You can get to an understanding of the partnership approach by considering how you would answer a simple question: “If someone was talking with you about your work, how would you like them to relate to you?” Chances are you would want them to treat you as an equal, to respect your knowledge enough to let you make some decisions about how you do your work. You would probably also want them to ask your opinion and listen to your voice, to talk with you in a way that encouraged through and dialogue about your real-life experience. If they also demonstrated that they expected to learn from you, it would probably make it all the more likely that you would listen to them.” (Knight, p. 28)

Equality: Learning With Rather Than Done To

Equality is central within any partnership. Partners do not decide for each other; they decide together. In a true partnership, one partner does not tell the other what to do; they discuss, dialogue, and then decide together. Partners realize in healthy partnerships they are a lot smarter when they listen to their partner- when they recognize their partner as an equal.

Jim Knight, Unmistakable Impact

Learners who embrace the principle of equality recognize that in a partnership, the goal is not to win the other side over to their view. Rather, the goal is to find a match between what they have to offer and what a teacher can use. In the truest sense, if someone does not agree with our view of the world or our perspective, in a partnership the first step is to not argue our point more persuasively but to try to fully understand the collaborating teacher’s view or perspective. (Knight, 2011)

Choice: What and How They Learn

“Teachers should have choice regarding what and how they learn” (Knight, 2011, p. 31). If we believe in professional equality then it follows that all professionals have the right to make decisions regarding what and how they learn. When change leaders do not provide choice to professionals, it immediately negates a sense of equality and can promote a sense of “one-up” that can erode a sense of professional equality. Just as with learners in a classroom, a complete choice is not possible. Complete freedom is not the answer, as there are times when a school or system needs teachers to have a shared understanding and implementation of teaching practices.


Voice: Learning Empowers and Respects all Voices

“If partners are equal, and if they choose what they do and do not do, they should be free to say what they think, and their opinions should count” (Knight, 2011, p. 34). When learning in partnership, all voices are equally respected. “When we take the partnership approach, we create opportunities for people to express their own points of view. This means that a primary benefit of partnership is that everyone gets a chance to learn from others because others share what they know” (Knight, 2011, p. 34).


How does this impact coaching? Jim Knight (2011) has some suggestions:

  • Enter into conversations by asking questions, and wait for others to say what they think;
  • Temporarily set aside your own opinions so you can really hear what others have to say;
  • Truly value your colleagues’ perspectives;
  • Enter conversations expecting to learn from your colleagues; and
  • Effective practices are shared rather than mandated, allowing teachers to make connections and figure out how to implement in their context. Tools that empower teachers to be more organized, have a deeper understanding of content and process and connect to more students can inform teacher voice.

Reciprocity: Everyone LearnsReciprocity

Reciprocity is the belief that each learning interaction is an opportunity for everyone to learn – an embodiment of the saying, “when one teaches, two learn.” People who live out the principle of reciprocity approach others with humility, expecting to learn from them. When we look at everyone else as a teacher and a learner, regardless of their credentials, we will be surprised by new ideas, concepts, strategies, and passions. If we go into an experience expecting to learn, much more often than not, we will.

Dialogue: Thinking Together

Dialogue is a sign that we truly respect our partners. Dialogue is talking with the goal of digging deeper and exploring ideas together, or “thinking together”. Paulo Freire describes dialogue as a mutually humanizing form of communication. We become more thoughtful, creative, and alive when we talk in ways that open up rather than shut down.


As Martin Buber (1970) explains, if I use language to get people to do what I want them to do, if I manipulate, then I treat them like objects, not subjects. An antidialogical approach is truly dehumanizing. It is only when I encourage and tap into my partner’s imagination, creativity, knowledge, and ideas, that I truly respect them as fully human.

Reflection: Accept or Reject Thinking

ReflectionWhen we take the partnership approach, we don’t tell others what to believe; we respect our partners’ professionalism and provide them with enough information so they can make their own decisions. Partners don’t do the thinking for their partners. Rather, they empower their partners to do the thinking. Reflection stands at the heart of the partnership approach, but it is only possible when people have the freedom to accept or reject what they are learning as they see fit.

Praxis: Apply Learning to Real-Life Practice

The ultimate goal of all forms of professional learning is for teachers to apply their learning in their contexts. In a partnership approach, how this occurs is that teachers are given time to reshape new ideas, integrate them into existing practices and implement ideas in a way that makes sense. Praxis is defined as the say that we apply new ideas into our lives. This is the foundation for change in education.

In order for praxis to occur, teachers need to consciously decide to implement or not implement and in what ways. They need to make sense of the idea and connect it to their prior learning. Praxis is not memorizing a new routine or using a new program. Praxis is a conscious choice to make conscious decisions regarding teaching practice.


Having the skills to build learning relationships with teacher colleagues is key to the effectiveness of coaches and mentors. Professional relationships and a clear vision for WHY we do this work can build positive learning-focussed conversations that move learning forward for both teachers and coaches, and ultimately provide supports for students in our classrooms.

Knight, J. (2002). Partnership learning fieldbook. Retrieved Mar 15, 2012, from Instructional coaching Kansas coaching project: http://instructionalcoach.org/images/partnership/PartnershipLearningFieldbook.pdf

Knight, J. (2011). Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, Learning Forward.

Schon, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Washington.

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