Trending in 2020: Mindfulness for Adolescents

Twenty years ago, “mindfulness” was nearly absent from conversations in the education world. Fast forward to 2020, and we’ve witnessed an incredible surge of interest in integrating mindfulness from teachers, administrators, policymakers and researchers.  What accounts for this interest?

We suspect one key reason is that under the stress of expanding classrooms and standardized assessments, the teacher-student relationship has suffered. Sharing mindfulness helps reclaim the emotional poignancy of learning, which is, in the end an exchange between two people. The following excerpt from our book about teaching mindfulness to adolescents focuses on the power of self-disclosure by both teacher and student as they build and navigate an authentic relationship that facilitates deep learning.

Teaching mindfulness to adolescents is an art. It calls us to draw on all of our skills and faculties: our intelligence and creativity, our humanity, compassion, and humor. As educators, one of our primary tasks is to hone our interpersonal skills so that we can develop quality relationships of trust and mutual respect with the young folks we serve, with the purpose of fostering the growth of such relationships between and among students themselves.

Such relationships are deeply nourishing for us human beings and especially so for teens and adolescents who often lack the unconditional acceptance, love, and affection for which they long. The more solid our rapport, the more risks the kids will take and the deeper they can go in their practice and their healing.

There are myriad ways to build such relationships, from how we show up in the room to how we co-create a group with students, from creatively integrating art or music to playing games or dancing. Within this wide field of options, finding your own authentic voice and way of connecting is perhaps the most essential.

Young people have an incredibly sensitive internal meter for authenticity. As one high school teacher and mindfulness instructor noted in a conversation: “Teens can smell bullshit from anywhere.” If you’re putting on a front, trying to get their approval, or allowing your unresolved adolescent issues to take over, they’ll pick up on it and lose interest. They’ll either resist directly or avoid contact indirectly.

Bring your authentic self to the room. If you’re being real, they’ll recognize that and most likely be drawn to it. One of the most salient developmental features of this age is the process of psychological differentiation and identity formation. Peer pressure, social anxiety, and insecurity are daily visitors. In a consumerist society, where happiness and self-worth are equated with material success, in a world of disembodied, disconnected, stressed-out adults, young people are hungry for authenticity.

Given all of this, being at home in yourself is one of the most powerful things you can offer to teens. When you are authentic, it gives them permission to be themselves.

Develop your own language for teaching mindfulness that reflects your life experience and is appropriate to the context within which you teach. Incorporate what works from different sources (e.g., curricula, teachers, multimedia sources) while maintaining an uncompromising commitment to being yourself.

Powerful teaching is the result of finding and refining our own unique voice and style. While you’re teaching, pay attention to moments where you feel natural, moments where your physical posture and self-expression are in sync in such a way that you feel completely yourself. Take special note of those moments, letting the feeling of naturalness sink in. Use the wholehearted awareness of mindfulness practice to imprint that feeling in your consciousness so it becomes a reference point for your teaching.


Authenticity is the language, the currency for working with adolescents. In this context, your ability to be real and vulnerable with others is a strength. Many educators find it helpful to share some of their own story early in the process of getting to know a class, often during the first session. Dave Smith, meditation teacher and educator, will give kids a 5-minute biography. “I tell them a little about my life. ‘When I was your age, I had such-and-such trauma. I hated the world, hated my life, my parents…’ They’re like, ‘Me, too.’ If you’ve been through something real, you can use that to build trust.”

By sharing openly, the facilitator models strength through vulnerability, opens the door to a genuine relationship, and invites the kids to a deeper level of honesty. Self-disclosing can have a ripple effect. When done well, sharing your personal experience can build trust and safety and create an environment in which others are willing to take risks.

There are many creative ways to invite students to express themselves authentically. When we’ve done our job well, created the proper conditions of safety and trust and given teens permission to be real, they have the capacity to take enormous emotional risks. Many educators (ourselves included) feel regularly inspired by their raw authenticity, their willingness to share openly and unabashedly. Morris Ervin recounts the transformation of one very quiet student, a young man whose brother had been killed by the police. He rarely said a word in high school. At the talent show at the end of Morris’ three month mentoring program, he was dancing and reciting poetry on stage, in front of the whole school.

Creating the conditions for this kind of open sharing requires a level of vulnerability that a lot of adults don’t feel comfortable with in general, let alone with teens and adolescents. It requires walking a fine line between sharing openly and maintaining appropriate boundaries. The danger of sharing too much is that we take center stage, make the relationship about our own needs, or collapse the differentiation of roles into becoming friends. On the other hand, if we don’t share any of our vulnerability and hold the role too rigidly or opaquely, we limit the possibilities for learning and connection.

While powerful, self-disclosure must be done consciously and intention- ally, with an awareness of how it will serve. Different levels of self-disclosure are appropriate for different environments. Educators, mental health professionals, and mentors are trained to disclose personal life experiences carefully, with the primary aim always to serve the students rather than our own interests. We don’t self-disclose because we want to get something off our chest or to seek attention from adolescents.

Strategic disclosure builds connection and models a fluid, dynamic relationship to power. By sharing personally, we can demonstrate that we’re not holding too tightly to the authority of our role. (At the same time, this can be overused as a way of disavowing the power we do hold—and need to hold to—in our role.) If you feel drawn to disclose something personal, check your intention. Are you doing it because it will benefit the youth? Or are you doing this to get approval, be liked, or mask fear? As soon as the intention shifts to serving our own ends rather than the youth, disclosing may be counterproductive.

This post was adapted from the forthcoming book Teaching Mindfulness to Empower Adolescents by Matthew Brensilver, JoAnna Hardy, and Oren Jay Sofer (W. W. Norton, March 2020).

Matthew Brensilver, PhD, teaches meditation at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and UCLA. JoAnna Hardy teaches meditation to young people, offers retreats nationally, and works to build multicultural community with a focus on social and racial justice. Oren Jay Sofer, a meditation teacher, author, and communication trainer, leads retreats and workshops nationally.

Trending in 2020: To Teach or Not to Teach “Triggering” Texts

I confess. I still teach Sherman Alexie’s books. I value the quality of his work and the power it has on adolescent readers too much to give it up. That declaration has created confusion, consternation, and even condemnation by some fellow teachers who heretofore thought I was at least passably “woke.” How can I be a feminist and teach the works of such a serial abuser?  You probably still watch Woody Allen movies, they sneer.

Similarly, despite the reasonable reconsideration of the dominance of Shakespeare in literature curricula, I am not swayed by the argument that his plays shouldn’t be taught because they are “triggering.” From my perspective, both the rise of trigger warnings and the #MeToo movement have reshaped and perhaps diminished the landscape of the politics of teaching literature.

Given the powerful rise of #MeToo movement, it has become, for some, a politically incorrect choice to teach the much-maligned Sherman Alexie. Or Junot Díaz. Or David Foster Wallace. Or Garrison Keillor. Even the Holocaust survivor and author of Night, Eli Wiesel, has been shunned by the movement. These developments make left-leaning scholars like me strange bedfellows with New Critics as we may again need to evaluate the relative value of literature as it exists apart from the author. Can we separate the art from the artist, the writer from his book? I made a career out of eschewing the New Critical insistence on removing considerations of the author from the text (Appleman, 2014). Along with generations of progressive literacy instructors, I focused on the reader’s responses or other ways of viewing texts. I viewed biographical criticism as one of several legitimate theoretical lenses to read and interpret literature. I even ridiculed those radical New Critics who claim that the author’s life and times had nothing to do with the relative literary merit of his work. Now I want to keep reading and teaching The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and ignore everything I learn about Sherman Alexie. Am I a hypocrite?

In addition to the #MeToo movement, the call for trigger warnings has also prompted the removal of texts from the classroom, the curriculum, even the library. The call for trigger warnings, pre-reading cautions that literature might trigger previous trauma, complex memories, or unhealed wounds, clearly has its merits. After all, we teachers have our own version of the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. Yet it is almost impossible to read literature, that unflinching mirror of the human condition, without touching on the kinds of issues that many students ask to be shielded from: death, violence, heartache, childhood and adolescent trauma, illness, and sexuality.  Examples abound of the chilling effects of trigger warnings on the teaching of literature. Teachers at every grade level are reconsidering the place of Shakespeare in the literature curriculum as they juggle complaints about violence and sex. A prospective English major who asked for assurance that nothing she would read would upset her was thoughtfully counseled to consider another major. A women’s studies professor who included The Bluest Eye on her syllabus was confronted by her students even before her class began. We won’t read this book under any conditions, they told her. It has incest in it, and that is triggering.       

Can literature be read without triggering, or, in fact, is part of the role of literature to trigger, that is, to wake and engage our complex set of emotions?  While it is, of course, imperative to consider our students’ well-being and to teach sensitively, I shudder at the thought that this strain of politics will banish some texts into silence.

Rather than banish those texts, perhaps we could adopt Gerry Graff’s (1993) instructions to teach the controversy. Christina Torres, despite her misgivings, still teaches Shakespeare, but encourages her students to trouble the text:

Teachers must be upfront about the problematic aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. We must call out the misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew, the racism in Othello, and the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice…. Students deserve to interrogate, disagree with, and even dislike Shakespeare’s plays. (Torres, 2019)

In a thoughtful essay that describes his preservice students’ resistance to Sherman Alexie, Jeff Spanke ruminates on the cost of not including problematic texts:

In opting not to engage with the text, our class became a text unto itself: a narrative not too dissimilar to the one we read for that night. Competing histories, conflicting values, minority voices, power and privilege and hope and loss, all coalescing for a precious moment in the social construct of school. Yes, through their frustration, my students reminded me that I can always point to other books to discuss. But that night’s class also reminded me that our frustration might be the point of discussing books. (2018, p. 107)

As I have argued elsewhere (Appleman, 2014), literature can help our students learn to read and resist ideology, a purpose that has never been more important. Literature provides a site of inquiry like no other for exploring the human condition. As part of that exploration, we can help students learn to read both texts and worlds with a nuanced and critical eye. We can teach them to discover how power and privilege are inscribed all around us so they can become the enlightened witnesses that bell hooks (1994) calls for and that we so desperately need in these particularly troubled times.

Yes, I am a feminist, and yes, I am outraged by what I have learned about Sherman Alexie’s actions toward women, but I am not going to stop teaching his texts. I want to have the conversation, not the silence.


Appleman, D. (2014). Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge.

Graff, G. (1993). Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts can Revitalize American Education. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Spanke, J.  Magnificent things and terrible men: Teaching Sherman Alexie in the age of #MeToo. English Education, October 2018.

Torres, C.  Why I’m rethinking teaching Shakespeare in my English classroom. Education Week Teacher, October 2019.

Deborah Appleman is the author of Words No Bars Can Hold: Literacy Learning in Prison (W. W. Norton, 2019). She lives in Minnesota and is the Hollis L. Caswell Professor of Educational Studies and director of the summer writing program at Carleton College. Since 2007, Deborah has taught language, literature, and creative writing courses at a high-security prison for men in the upper Midwest.

Trending in 2020: Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Teachers?

Just after high school and before my first year in college, I taught mathematics in a rural village in Kenya. After a few months, the mayor of the town invited me to his home.  I sat in an anteroom that had a swept dirt floor and freshly whitewashed walls.  He left me to sit alone with a small battery-operated radio.  The radio played loud static.  There were no radio channels available.  After 5 minutes or so, he returned to ask me what I thought of his radio.  Being polite, I said, “Very nice, Mr. Mayor!” 

Why did he do this?  He had be aware that it was only noise.  To this day, I think he was showing me that he was looking towards the future.  The technology was an aspirational symbol. “I am taking this town into the future!” 

We see an analog of this when school districts spend large funds to ensure students have computers, even though there is limited infrastructure to support the technology and there is no compelling programming.  It is aspirational – a way to tell parents and children that they are looking to the future. 

In the last few years, people have started to look to the future of Artificial Intelligence in education.  I would like to clarify what that future could be, so the educational enterprise can set appropriate (and functional) aspirations.

By way of background, artificial Intelligence (AI) automates tasks that humans perform . AI applications range from reading x-rays to driving a car to understanding what you say to your phone. In education, this leads people to think about automating teaching.  Indeed, the earliest AI systems simulated human tutors.  For example, the computer assigns a child an algebra problem.  The computer tracks whether the child follows the correct steps.  When a child makes a mistake, the program intervenes to help.  The key intelligence is the ability to track student performance over time to recognize what sub-skills the child has mastered or missed. It can then move the student backwards or forwards in the content.  It is similar to what many tutors do, where they diagnose the gaps in student understanding, and back up to cover the missing material.  The expression “adaptive educational technology” refers to the software’s abilities to move a learner forward or backward in the content (or, the test questions, in the context of adaptive testing).  Notably, unlike the best tutors, adaptive technologies do not currently change the method of instruction to match individual student needs.  There is room for improvement.

Intelligent tutors have shown positive effects, especially for domains that involve the application of rule-based procedures, such as mathematics, programming, and logic.  They are a smart idea. Even so, I do not think imitating and eventually replacing the teacher is the right aspirational goal for educational technology.  Rather than focusing on the efficiencies gained from automation, we should think about how AI can support fundamentally new ways of learning made possible by the computer.  It is only in the past 20 years that students could learn by exploring computer simulations of natural phenomena, such as glacier formation, bird flocking, and gravity. How can AI support this, and other, new forms of learning? This is an important question to explore, because many current applications of AI dictate what students should do, often by giving them step-by-step instructions within a very fixed instructional model.  Ironically, these applications make students more like computers, so they too follow step-by-step instructions.  This is an old model of instruction largely suited to a different time in history.  What we really want for the future is students with rich knowledge bases who can make smart choices about what and how to learn.

Done right, AI can be exceptionally powerful in helping students to become independent learners, when there is no teacher available to tell them exactly what they should be thinking and doing.  How might it do this?  There are already signs.  AI can provide rich feedback.  For example, work at Stanford is making it possible for children with autism to gain feedback about the emotions of other people.  Children wear smart glasses that can detect emotions from the faces of other people. The glasses can also show messages to the children, for example, by labeling a facial expression as, “Happy.”  This helps the children learn to recognize emotions. AI systems can also observe whether students are using good design-thinking strategies and exploring alternatives, which is often hard for a teacher to monitor in a classroom of 25+ children. AI systems can even help teachers keep track of who is speaking the most in class, which alerts teachers to the possibility that they are talking too much of the time or that some groups of students are being systematically shut out.

More broadly, a great promise of AI in education is that it will provide a steady stream of evidence and feedback to students, teachers, and even policy makers.  With new sources of evidence, educators and learners will finally be in a position for continual improvement.  Education has always been a data impoverished field.  Once-a-year standardized tests are coarse metrics, and it is incredibly demanding on teachers to provide regular and rich feedback.  A kindergarten teacher once asked me to finish the sentence, “Practice makes ______.”  I fell for it and said, “perfect.”  She said, “No, practice makes permanent.  Practice with feedback makes perfect.”  AI systems are increasing in their abilities to provide meaningful feedback.  This ranges from feedback to improve writing, to improve critical thinking, to improve learning from open-ended tasks.  AI systems can also provide feedback to teachers, and not just about their students but also about their teaching.  Systems are being developed that can interpret transcripts and even raw video footage of teaching to help teachers notice missed opportunities or suggest new ways of asking questions.  AI systems can help policy makers and administrators, for example, by discovering early warning signs of potential failure.

My aspirational version of Artificial Intelligence in education does not replace the teacher with robots. Instead, future AI will work with teachers to get information they and their students need to learn and improve.  This human-centered approach to AI puts learning in the hands of people, and it puts AI in the role of helping people do what they still do best – learn when they have useful feedback.

Daniel L. Schwartz, PhD, author of The ABCs of How We Learn (W. W. Norton, 2016) is the Dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and holds the Nomellini-Olivier Chair in Educational Technology. He is an award-winning learning scientist, who also spent eight years teaching secondary school in Los Angeles and Kaltag, Alaska. His special niche is the ability to produce novel and effective learning activities that also test basic hypotheses about how people learn.

Trending in 2020: Recognizing Teacher Professionalism and Expertise in Trying Times

Almost daily, it seems, our social media platforms blow up with yet another story about why teachers are leaving the profession. We read reports by think tanks and policy centers, personal narratives from discouraged teachers—both new and veteran—and calls for change from professional organizations. Teachers are leaving in record numbers for many reasons, these sources tell us, but prime among them is this: Once respected as professionals, many teachers now feel as if their voices have been silenced—that their education, experience, and diligent commitment to students no longer have a place in the conversations about education. Standardized tests lead to standardized curricula and standardized teaching practices in far too many places. They create “teacher proof” approaches that ignore teacher creativity and contradict research based practices.

            As former high school teachers and now teacher educators, we work with a lot of teachers. We hear their despair and we worry about their futures in this profession they have chosen and that they love. At the same time that we may fret, though, we’re intrigued by the committed professionalism we see among so many teachers:

  • Given the number of teachers who are leaving, what is it that keeps them in education?
  • Given the focus on mandated curriculum, why do they keep going to conferences and participating in twitter chats and reading professional books and creating professional learning experiences for themselves (different from the mandated versions of this in so many of their schools and school districts)?
  • Given an environment that diminishes their ability to make decisions about classroom practices, what makes them continuous learners, trying new and research-supported ways of teaching in their classroom; reflecting on why something worked and how to rethink something that didn’t?
  • And—most of all—how do they do this in the face of structures seemingly designed to erase them as professionals?

            We see teachers exerting themselves as professionals every day. Cathy has helped facilitate a group of teacher researchers for over 20 years in which teachers meet monthly outside the confines of their schools. These teachers share their deepest wonderings about teaching, conduct research in their own classrooms, bring data back to the group to reflect upon together, share resources, and make changes in their teaching as a result of their own and their colleagues’ work. These teachers don’t do it for graduate credit; they don’t do it for an increase in pay; they don’t do it to impress their administrators. They do it, they proclaim, for the shared experience, for the opportunity to talk with other teachers who share their values and commitment, and to get support from other experts in their profession—their colleague teachers.

Similarly, in recent work in collaboration with Nicole Mirra, Antero has engaged in ongoing participatory research with teachers and students from across the country. The Digital Democratic Dialogue (3D) study began as an initial focus on how teachers can support the complex civic dialogue that feels so distant from what teachers often feel comfortable engaging in under the political circumstances in the U.S. today. However, while our analysis of nearly two years of participation across the country emphasizes powerful lessons about civic learning, there is an equally powerful lesson that the 3D study helps illuminate about teachers today. Supported teachers, with caring colleagues and resources, thrive. Just as Cathy noted above, these teachers engage with one another for the love of the profession, for the thrill of intellectualism, and for the very simple fact that this study is guided by their expertise.

It’s About Respect

            What does this tell us?  We think it’s this:  When teachers are treated as professionals, when they are treated as the experts they are, they can help shift the conversations about teaching and learning. To that point, the National Council of Teachers of English is considering a resolution that seeks to name and honor teacher expertise, defining teacher experts as “teachers who make a commitment to intentional professional growth that is sustained over time and years of practice.” This resolution, created by the NCTE Resolutions Committee at the 2019 NCTE Annual Convention and passed at the 2019 Annual Business Meeting, is now awaiting approval by NCTE membership.

            The resolution further names teacher experts as those who:

  • Continually hone the art and craft of teaching by studying their own practice
  • Engage in teaching that responds effectively to particular moments in the context of their classrooms and work with students
  • Foster authentic, equitable, and caring relationships with students, their families, and the communities in which they teach
  • Seek leadership opportunities and professional learning within their schools and elsewhere, while remaining active classroom teachers

            It says a lot about where we are in terms of U.S. public education when a professional organization like NCTE must take the necessary stand of recognizing teacher expertise through a resolution like this. As we look to the work we do with teachers on a day-to-day basis, we recognize that we must act along two seemingly divergent lines:

  1. We must speak loudly of the importance for valuing teachers as experts and professionals; this must be a crucial and explicitly taught component in teacher education programs.
  2. We must also make the ways we value these teachers’ burgeoning judgments implicit and part of the invisible infrastructure of what teachers naturally do.

As we are just now entering the third decade of the 21st century, we hold hope for powerful shifts in the landscape of teacher accountability and evaluation. These are trying times for public educators, but we continue to hold fast to hope alongside the passionate teachers we work with and learn from daily.

Cathy Fleischer is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University and special imprint editor at NCTE. Antero Garcia is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Their co-authored book, Everyday Advocacy: Teachers Who Change the Literacy Narrative, will be released this November.

Trending in 2020: Have Educators Privileged Argument Writing at the Expense of Personal Narrative?

Although the Common Core State Standards have lost something of their influence over the teaching and curriculum of the English Language Arts, I think it’s undeniable that a lasting legacy of the CCSS is that they increased the centrality of the teaching of argument in the writing curriculum.  You can see the CCSS architects’ justification for this emphasis in a subsection of Appendix A aptly titled “The Special Place of Argument in the Standards” (  You can see it also in this famous (or infamous) statement by David Coleman, the chief of those architects, that was reported in The Atlantic: “A boss would never tell an employee, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood’” (Goldstein, 2012).  Argument, Coleman argues, should be taught because it’s practical.

And not just in the world of work.  I’ve been among those who have encouraged teachers to give arguments its special place because I recognize that argument is “the most highly prized type of academic discourse” (Andrews, 2009, p. 1), that college writing placement tests are characteristically argument based, and that the increasingly common placement of students into developmental writing classes before they can take their required English composition class is enormously costly both for the students and for their institutions.  That’s why in our work with 11th and 12th grade students in an under-resourced neighborhood urban school my students and I have focused on argument.

I’m proud of our work.  We engage students in thinking about a variety of important questions like “What does it really mean to be smart?” and “To what extent am I responsible for others?”  To prepare them for the reading, writing, and arguing they’ll be doing as we explore those big questions, we have them engage with less weighty questions, like “Who makes the best burrito?” And “What supervillain would be the best one to enlist if you want to take over the world?” Students seem to like our approach, at least for the most part, and our data demonstrate that our students have made statistically significant gains in their writing ability as measured by their responses to prompts designed to resemble those given on our university’s placement test.  (See Smith & Imbrenda, 2018 for more details about the program.)

But recently the privileged place of academic argument has begun to be questioned. Turner and Hicks (2017), for example, make the case that argument in the real world (in memes and infographics, for example) works differently than it does in the academy. Smagorinsky (2018) worries that instruction in argumentation may fail to recognize that arguments are often more emotional than rational.  Hobbs (forthcoming) is concerned that schools have neglected the study of propaganda, which she sees as vitally important, because, when it is compared to argument, it is regarded as insufficiently complex and serious to be the subject of study.

I take these critiques seriously, but I think our approach addresses these concerns, at least in some fashion.  When you engage kids in evaluating a wide variety of arguments and in thinking about if and how they work, it seems to me that you are helping them understand both formal academic argument and informal digitally-based arguments, many of which appeal to emotion rather than logic. Imagine, for example, a lesson that asked students to list all of the evidence a local college website uses to attract applicants and then to rank that evidence in terms of its effectiveness.

But another criticism of the emphasis on argument worries me more. DeStigter (2015), for example, critiques what he see as an overemphasis on argumentation because it “renders illegible other, nondominant modes of contemplation and expression.” In so doing, DeStigter continues, “the ascendance of argument limits our understandings of who we humans are and what we are capable of because it attends to only a tiny part of the communicative spectrum we occupy” (p. 20).  Johnson, the employee in the Coleman quote above, may have stories to tell as well as analyses to write.

My concern with this critique was amplified recently by reading Deborah Appleman’s remarkable new book, Words No Bars Can Hold (2019).  In it she chronicles the work she has been doing with men who are incarcerated. And she shares their writing and their thoughts about it at some length.  We hear China, a lifer, say “I write because I don’t have a choice.  Who else is going to be my voice, tell my story, and show my pain?”  And Johnny, another lifer, who says “I believe writing can heal the deepest gashes and restore a fragmented soul.” Nobody says such things about an argument, no matter how engaging.  Deborah’s book is a powerful reminder of what our work as literacy educators can mean in the lives of students.

I’m not here to say that I’m going to rewrite our curriculum.  I find the arguments for argument compelling, and as I noted above, I remain very proud of our work.  But Deborah’s book has created more than a little niggle for me.  In a time in which the privileged place of academic argument in the writing curriculum no longer goes without saying, I need to think more about the extent to which I, recognizing that time is a zero-sum game, have privileged argument at the expense of personal narrative.  I wonder whether our students would develop rich writerly identities like those of Deborah’s students if we devoted more time to helping them spin out their stories instead of just using personal anecdotes in service of their argumentative claims.  I need to make sure that in looking to the future we are serving our students appropriately in the here-and-now.


Appleman, Deborah. (2019). Words No Bars Can Hold: Literacy Learning in Prison. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

DeStigter, T. (2015). “On the ascendance of argument: A critique of the assumptions of academe’s dominant form.” Research in the Teaching of English, 50, 11-34.

Goldstein, D.  (2012). The schoolmaster.  The Atlantic.  Available at

Hobbs, Renee. (2020). Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Smagorinsky, P. (2018). Emotion, reason, and argument: Teaching persuasive writing in tense times. English Journal, 107, (5), 98-101.

Smith, M. W., & Imbrenda, J. (2018). Developing Writers of Argument:  Tools & Rules that Sharpen Students’ Reasoning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Turner, K. T., & Hicks. T. (2017).  Argument in the Real World.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Michael W. Smith is a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in Temple University’s College of Education. He joined the ranks of college instructors after 11 years of teaching high school English. His scholarly work focuses on understanding what motivates and supports adolescents’ reading and writing both in and out of school. He has reported his research and the instructional ideas that derive from it in 16 books, two of which he and his co-author Jeff Wilhelm received NCTE’s David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English, as well as in a wide variety of articles and chapters.

Trending in 2020: School Discipline is Trauma-Insensitive and Trauma-Uninformed

I was asked to write a blog post about a recent trend in education that I find either exciting or concerning. I decided to write about a topic that is both exciting and concerning: the impact of trauma on learning and behavior.

First the exciting part: these days many educators are being trained to understand the impact of chronic stress and trauma on students’ development, behavior, and learning. Schools everywhere are devoting significant professional development time to this topic and prioritizing being “trauma-informed” or “trauma-sensitive.” Thankfully, as a result educators have far more empathy for how chronic stress and trauma can derail learning and be a primary cause of disruptive behavior in the classroom.

Now the concerning part: these very same schools often still rely heavily on punitive school disciplinary strategies. I recall visiting a school recently where the leadership proudly described their trauma-informed training and then proceeded to show me examples of the behavior contracts they use with their students. These traditional disciplinary strategies (including sticker-charts, time-outs, demerits, detention, suspension, and expulsion) aren’t very successful for the students to whom they are most often applied. Research has clearly shown that such disciplinary actions actually increase the likelihood of further disciplinary measures and are related to higher drop-out rates as well as lower academic achievement and even eventual juvenile justice involvement (APA, 2008).  And to whom are they most often applied? Sadly, to the most at-risk, misunderstood, and marginalized students including those with histories of trauma and exposure to chronic stress. Students who exhibit challenging behavior are often the students with trauma histories because being exposed to chronic stress or trauma delays brain development, causing lags in skill development which in turn result in challenging behaviors. As a direct result of their trauma, many of these students struggle with skills like flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving. They don’t lack the will to behave well, they lack the skills to behave well. No wonder traditional school discipline doesn’t work with traumatized students: motivational strategies don’t teach students neurocognitive skills they lack.

Even more concerning: not only do punitive interventions not work with traumatized students, they can do developmental damage and make matters worse. Nowhere in the trauma-informed practice literature have I seen anyone advocate for the use of power and control to manipulate a traumatized student’s behavior. Using behavior charts and rewards and consequences is doing just that. It is leveraging a power differential to increase compliance. Put more simply, traditional school discipline revolves around rewarding students when they do what we want and revoking privileges when they don’t: a toxic dynamic that many traumatized kids are already all too familiar with in their past relationships with adults. In other words, traditional school disciplinary strategies are about as trauma-uninformed and trauma-insensitive as it gets!

There are additional side-effects of this vicious cycle of chronic stress and punitive discipline (Ablon & Pollastri, 2018). When punitive discipline is ineffective, it adds more stress; which further delays skill development; which results in escalating behavior; which is then often met by raising the stakes with even more punitive discipline. Systems of escalating consequences are sometimes called “progressive discipline.” But this is a misnomer: when it comes to curbing challenging behavior, those systems are anything but progressive. In fact, I like to refer to them as “progressive dysregulation”, since both students and educators become increasingly dysregulated, with dire consequences for everyone including the teachers. Dealing with challenging behavior in the classroom is one of the biggest sources of stress for educators; it drives talented, young teachers out of the profession just when we need them most.

Thankfully there is still good news: we have the power to interrupt this cycle of chronic stress and trauma. We don’t have to respond to challenging behavior with punitive discipline. Proven alternatives exist. Instead of adding stress that further delays skills and escalates behavior, we can buffer stress, build skills, and reduce challenging behavior in a truly trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive way (Perry & Ablon, 2019). Effective alternatives, such as Collaborative Problem Solving and restorative practices, are relational forms of discipline that do not revolve around use of power and control.

Schools represent a remarkable opportunity to help our most vulnerable, traumatized kids. Students spend the majority of their waking hours—the majority of their youth—surrounded by trained professionals who are experts in helping kids build skills. So, let’s harness that opportunity and turn trauma-informed principles into concrete, actionable strategies that transform school discipline.


Ablon, J.S., & Pollastri, A.R, The School Discipline Fix. (2018). Norton: New York, NY.

American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. The American Psychologist63(9), 852.

Perry BD, Ablon JS. (2019) CPS as a Neurodevelopmentally Sensitive and Trauma-Informed Approach. In: Pollastri A., Ablon J., Hone M. (eds) Collaborative Problem Solving. Current Clinical Psychiatry. Springer, Cham

J. Stuart Ablon, PhD, is associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of Think:Kids in the psychiatry department at Mass General Hospital.  Among his publications is The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach (Norton, 2018), co-authored with Alisha R. Pollastri. Dr. Ablon will be speaking at the SXSW EDU Conference on March 11, 2020 in Austin, Texas.