Building Students’ Self-Awareness Skills: A Systems Thinking Approach to Trauma-Sensitive Education
Embracing the notion that everyone has experienced trauma during the pandemic leads to the acceptance that all schools require a trauma-informed education approach now and for the years to come. Like all educational institutions, Jewish day schools must be equipped with the tools and resources to support the vast and pervasive emotional distress that has resulted from the range of trauma that our children and adolescents have experienced. At a time of collective trauma, students—more than ever before—need to be given a voice to express themselves, and to know that they will have someone who will deeply listen to and support them. They need to feel and observe that their school as a whole is embracing, encouraging, teaching, and modeling self-awareness.
In her book The Choice: Embrace the Possible, Dr. Edith Eger, world renowned trauma specialist and Holocaust survivor, often used the phrase ‘depression is the opposite of expression’ when reflecting on how she has helped her patients, and herself, work through trauma. This phrase reflects the vital role that active expression of thoughts and feelings plays in the healing process after experiencing trauma. When children and adolescents are able to express themselves, they are able to start walking the path toward resilience. When students have the language, tools, and space to accurately and honestly express their emotions and ideas, their teachers and other caring adults in their lives will then have the information they need to be emphatic, supportive, and collaborative helpers and caregivers.
Knowing that self-expression would be vital to the re-entry process this past fall, we, at Luria Academy, needed to figure out how best to create the conditions on the ground that would promote the importance of student voice. We asked ourselves what learning experiences students need in order to develop the tools to understand their emotions and thoughts. Furthermore, we challenged ourselves to deeply understand what skills students must have to accurately describe those emotions and thoughts so they can either identify a coping strategy themselves or articulate to an adult how they feel and what they need. To us, the answers to these questions lay in further developing self-awareness skills, a core competency from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) model for social and emotional learning (SEL).
What is Self-Awareness?
Self-awareness, as defined by CASEL, is the ability to understand and articulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and aspects of their identity. Specific self-awareness skills include developing emotional identification tools, self-efficacy, self-confidence, a growth mindset, and an understanding of personal interests and strengths. To become self-aware, students not only need to develop tools for understanding these concepts, but they also have to develop the language to express this self-knowledge to others and be able to articulate how their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are affecting them and others in different situations and contexts. Through the maturation of these skills, students can gain an understanding of their feelings so they can deal with them independently in a healthy manner or advocate for the type of support they need.
A Systems Thinking Framework
We knew that our response to trauma had to start with a journey through self-awareness discovery. But with all the other competing work demands (e.g., new safety procedures and protocols) being placed on school staff and administrators, the idea of any of us carrying the burden of teaching these skills seemed like an incredibly heavy lift. As Luria’s school psychologist, I personally wondered how I would be able to address all the social and emotional concerns of students during this coming year. How would I be able to anticipate, respond to, and support all the unpredictable, and even at times scary, situations that were going to occur? For teachers, I wondered the same. How were they going to be responsible for teaching self-awareness skills in their classrooms and hold space for their students’ emotional needs while dealing with all the other challenges in their lives and in their communities? What became quickly apparent to me as we started solidifying our re-entry plans over the summer was that no one could do this alone. We needed to have an inclusive trauma-informed re-entry plan that involved everyone; we needed a systems thinking approach.
A systems thinking approach recognizes that all aspects of school, all the component parts of its system, need to work towards the goal of fostering stronger self-awareness skills. In that respect, self-awareness skills need to be taught to students and also be infused across all levels of the Jewish day school system—school leadership, faculty and staff, students, families, school-wide programs, and all curricular areas.
Self-Awareness Across the System
- Self-Awareness Learning for Students
Students need to engage in direct and continual learning to develop self-awareness skills. We dedicated lessons throughout this year on self-awareness topics such as emotional identification, growth mindset, and recognizing strengths. Self-awareness skills were adapted to meet the developmental needs of preschool, elementary, and middle school students. In order to build tools for the expression of feelings and thoughts, we adopted the RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, Regulating) program this year, a comprehensive SEL program developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. As part of the RULER program, students learn to use the Mood Meter to recognize and label their emotions. As a psychologist, this tool was invaluable to me this year as it allowed me to provide students with an easy tool to use to express themselves.
- School Leadership
We thought it was essential that our leadership model self-awareness skills in order to create authentic environments where honest expression is encouraged and valued. Despite logistical challenges, the leadership continued their monthly meetings that covered topics such as navigating challenging conversations, becoming strong and collaborative teammates, and learning how to balance our needs with the needs of others. The leadership team was introduced to new texts to read on their own time, which centered on building their own self-awareness. Through its own SEL learning, the leadership team was able to infuse and model these skills throughout the system when giving feedback to staff, having check-ins, running team meetings, and collaborating with key stakeholders and community members.
- Teachers and Support Staff
It is critical for Jewish day schools to devote time and energy to engage their teachers and support staff in their own development of self-awareness skills. Learning these skills allows educators to be able to effectively and authentically impart these skills to their students. These tools also prepare them to work with their colleagues. At Luria, all faculty read Ross Greene’s Lost at School as a way to engage in a dialogue about behavioral approaches that emphasize listening to students and valuing the importance of empathy in collaboration. In addition, they practiced RULER skills for themselves as a faculty before introducing it to students.
- Integration Across Judaic and General Studies
CASEL’s framework for SEL has taught us that students need to learn SEL skills in multiple ways and in diverse contexts. A trauma-informed education approach needs to have no boundaries in curriculum or content areas. Given the diversity of subjects taught in Jewish schools, these environments are the perfect places to grow and practice self-awareness skills. To do this, we encouraged our staff and students to bring these skills to other contexts such as discussing whether a character in a story had a growth mindset during a language arts lesson or reflecting on a similar question in their Humash learning. Furthermore, we asked students to connect their newfound emotional identification tools to how they experience holiday learning and any community celebrations. For instance, during the days leading up to Purim we used the Mood Meter to reflect on what helps us experience joy and what we need to do to help others experience that emotion.
- Learning for Families
Opportunities for families to share in the SEL work is vital for the success of any SEL program. Jewish day schools need to share the self-awareness resources and tools that their children have received at school with the parent body. Hearing the same language at home and at school can be very powerful. This year, we held a book club for parents on self-awareness and we shared SEL updates and tools in our weekly newsletters.
- Across Multiple Languages
If we want students to express themselves, then we need to have the right words to accurately label their feelings in all the languages in which they are taught. Given that students in a Jewish day school need to shift into Hebrew learning environments, they also need to know how to use their self-awareness tools in that language. SEL curriculum materials need to be adapted to incorporate terms from different languages so student emotional vocabulary is robust, no matter what language is being used in their classrooms.
Building for the Future
The other day, I walked into a middle school math room with a large Mood Meter poster hanging on a wall in the background, and the math teacher and I talked about how we have both seen a lot of our middle school students become more confident in their math skills. Through an exploration this year of the emotions that they experienced during math, some of our middle school students started to become more comfortable with the subject and began taking risks in class for the first time.
This change in math mindset was not something we specifically designed; when we developed our re-entry plans this past summer, we did not target math self-confidence as one of our goals. But what we learned was that creating a dialogue about the importance of self-awareness empowered our teachers to bring that frame to their classrooms and created the safe space for our children to become more resilient in ways that we could not have possibly imagined or controlled. The math resilience happened organically and collaboratively between a teacher and her students as a result of the school-wide system we had created.
COVID-19 has forced all organizations to re-examine and strengthen their own systems to ensure that they are meeting the needs of those whom the organization serves. To us at Luria Academy, protecting the well-being of students meant adopting a trauma sensitive approach that places self-awareness at the center. It also meant giving all stakeholders in the system the tools, permission, and autonomy to foster social and emotional skills in their own unique way.
Focusing on the critical, core SEL skill of self-awareness gave students the tools to share their experiences and advocate for their needs. It also provided educators the information they need to be helpful and supportive listeners, while simultaneously giving the adults more tools to cope with the trauma they have experienced in their own lives. As a psychologist and a member of Luria’s leadership, I learned that no one can do this alone, and that all future social emotional initiatives need to be inclusive of every member of the school’s learning community. With a systems thinking approach to trauma-informed education, the whole school, including all its parts, was able to work together to create positive and supportive environments that teach, support, and encourage self-awareness.
Ian Cohen is the School Psychologist and Director of Support Services at Luria Academy of Brooklyn. Dr. Cohen received his doctorate in School Psychology from Temple University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He is currently on the executive board of the School Psychology Division of the New York State Psychology Association.