Conferring with Students Who’ve Experienced Childhood Trauma

Mrs. Anthony is a third grade teacher with a classroom of 26 diverse students. This year, she has more students than ever who seem to struggle with emotional regulation, attention, and peer interactions. During recent professional development in her school, she and her colleagues have had the opportunity to start to learn about how the effects of childhood trauma can present themselves in school. Through the lens of trauma, Mrs. Anthony is working to take a careful inventory of her own practices and decisions in the classroom, working to create a calm, predictable, and safe place for learning to unfold every day. As she does so, she begins to wonder about how her conferring practice might intersect with the needs and/or triggers of her students who are experiencing chronic trauma in their lives. 

No matter where you teach, what your class size, or how long you’ve been in the business, chances are you’re working to build more skills yourself for meeting the needs of students whose exposure to traumatic life experiences is interfering with school success.

Although it’s impossible to know exactly which students in your classroom have experienced childhood trauma, research indicates the number is high.  According to the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics division (JAMA Pediatrics), May 2013:

  • Four of every 10 children in America say they experienced a physical assault during the past year, with one in 10 receiving an assault-related injury.
  • 2% of all children experienced sexual assault or sexual abuse during the past year, with the rate at nearly 11% for girls aged 14 to 17.
  • Nearly 14% of children repeatedly experienced maltreatment by a caregiver, including nearly 4% who experienced physical abuse.
  • 1 in 4 children was the victim of robbery, vandalism or theft during the previous year.
  • More than 13% of children reported being physically bullied, while more than 1 in 3 said they had been emotionally bullied.
  • 1 in 5 children witnessed violence in their family or the neighborhood during the previous year.

You can also read more about childhood trauma statistics here and here.

Needless to say, learning to utilize trauma informed practices has become an essential skill set for everyone working in today’s schools. According to School Justice Partnerships Trauma Informed Schools Bulletin, a fundamental principle for a trauma informed approach in the classroom is to focus on helping students feel safe in relationships.  This relationship work is critical for all who work with children, especially teachers.

So, we offer this post, not because we are experts on the subject of childhood trauma, but because we have a deep-seeded passion to help all teachers meet the ever changing needs of students in their classrooms. The more we learn about trauma informed classrooms, the more convinced we become of the power of conferring, an up close, one-on-one conversation, to cultivate relationship, trust, respect, and agency in all of the children we serve, especially in those who are experiencing the effects of childhood trauma. Building and maintaining a classroom conferring practice has the power to support teachers with the four essential considerations of trauma informed care described by Hummer, Crosland, and Dollard (2009).

  • Connect – Focus on relationships.
  • Protect – Promote safety and trustworthiness.
  • Respect – Engage in choice and collaboration.
  • Redirect (Teach and Reinforce) – Encourage skill building and competence.

A consistent, caring conferring practice directly supports students who’ve experienced trauma. Through conferring we have the ability to promote safety and trustworthiness, help students engage in choice and collaboration, and encourage skill building and competence. Most importantly, through conferring, we have the ability to focus on relationships more so than with any other teaching method.

 “There is no more effective neurobiological intervention than a safe relationship”  — Bruce Perry, PhD, MD, researcher & child psychiatrist.

To that end, we offer the following ideas for using conferring to support students who are dealing with trauma:

  • Use conferring to build relationship. When we confer, we offer our wholehearted presence to one child at a time. We show up to listen, to notice, affirm, and teach new strategies. And if relationship is a primary strategy for bringing human souls back into regulation when things have gone awry, then we see regular conferring as a critical intervention for good in the lives of all children, especially in the lives of those whose life experiences have left them feeling afraid, alone, or out of control.
  • Let all students know what to expect. Before you start to confer, let all students know what this practice is. Let them know that you’re committed to spend time with each of them individually. Don’t leave them wondering or worrying what this one on one attention is about. Children living with chronic trauma have an amygdala is continuously overexcited and overworked. This causes them to tend to sense danger even when there is no danger. Until their anxiety is reduced, learning will suffer. So, smile, and use a calm and matter-of-fact voice when you explain, and even model, what to expect in a teacher-student conference.
  • Provide predictability. Chronic trauma can actually change the wiring of children’s brains, making it harder to concentrate, process, and learn to read. Some student’s brains have been trained to live in a constant heightened sense of alert, ready fight, flight, or freeze at the first sign of trouble. The more predictable and safe the environment feels, the more likely the child will be able to let themselves relax enough to engage in learning. Posting daily routines and honoring them is helpful. When you post your daily schedule, make sure conferring is clearly marked. 
  • Enter with care. When we enter  a child’s physical learning space, we like to think of ourselves entering someone else’s home. This helps us remember to do so as a gracious guest. We don’t want to come barging in large and in charge. Instead, we knock on the door, by saying something like, “May I join you?” or “May I interrupt?” Questions like these provide a moment of transition and choice making for students, empowering them as partners from the start. 
  • Be aware of physical proximity.  Some students have had traumatic experiences with adults who’ve gotten too close through physical or sexual abuse. So, as you pull up alongside each student to confer, pay attention to their physical responses to your proximity and adjust accordingly. A failure to do can easily trigger anxiety and shut down learning. 
  • Make a concerted effort to listen more than talk– which can be a very difficult thing to do. Often times, children need to know that there is an adult in their lives who is sincerely interested in listening more than talking. If this is new work to you, we recommend considering audio recording one or two conferences to compare the amount of talking you do and the amount of talking your students do. Once you have a starting point, you have the opportunity to make the effort to allow for more student talk next time. It’s very difficult to know how much we talk versus listen unless we have the audio evidence.
  • It’s a conversation, not an interrogation.Our goal is to show up and show ourselves as caring and trustworthy adults. Yet, the very thought of a one-to-one conversation with an adult causes some kids’ hearts to pound a little faster in their chests. Some students’ experiences that have left them so distrustful of adults, that even your approach leaves them worried they’ve done something wrong or that danger is near. Their  initial instinct might be a defensive response such as shutting down completely, giving one word responses, or even being outwardly defiant. With these students, trust is hard earned with patience and over time. So, tread with extra care, not pushing too hard or too fast. .   
  • Consider starting questions with a “WONDER CLAUSE”. To make sure our questions don’t feel too demanding, we sometimes soften them with what we call a wonder clause.  This means, we insert a simple clause before the question to assure the student of our genuine and caring curiosity. 
    • Rather than, “What are you reading?” We might smile and say, “I’m curious to know, what are you reading, today?”
    • Rather than, “What seems most important?” We might say, “I’d be interested to know, what seems most important to you right now?”
    • Rather than, “Why did you do that?” We might gently say, “Help me understand more about the choice you made.”   
  • Be aware of non verbals. Because students who’ve experienced trauma often pay more attention to nonverbal cues than to verbal cues, make sure your own body language is consistent with your message. A furrowed brow, crossed arms, hovering above a student, using a harsh or accusatory voice are all ways we might send triggering messages to students, even if not with our words. 
  • Use visuals. Most students benefit from visual supports and reminders, and this is especially true for students who have variable attention. So whenever possible, provide simple visual supports to reinforce affirmations and teaching. Examples might include a quick sketch with a few key words on sticky note or bookmark to leave behind after the conference.  
  • Make space for what comes up. When we confer we never know what will turn up. As students start to trust us more, viewing us a safe and reliable adults, they may begin to share information about past traumatic events at unexpected times. If this happens, listen patiently and without judgement. Talking can help children process the event. Reassure them it wasn’t their fault. Remind them they are now in a safe place.

To keep growing in our understanding of the effects and responses to trauma, we’re continuing to read, to research, and to have conversation with other educators about this critically relevant social justice topic. We’re betting that you are, too.  Below are few additional resources to keep the conversation going.

Trauma Informed Schools. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. 2017 

Trauma Informed Approaches to Classroom Management 

Helping Traumatized Children Learn

Some of my students just hop from book to book! What can I do to support them?

Question: A few of the readers in my class just seem unable to stick with a book from beginning to end. What can I do to help them commit?

Daniel, a fourth grader, seems to have picked up and put down more books than almost any other student in his fourth-grade class this year.  In fact, his teacher worries that he may not have finished a single book all year aside from the ones read in small groups or with book clubs. Daniel’s ability to read is on par with his grade-level peers, but he just doesn’t ever seem to find a book that he really wants to commit to. His teacher knows Daniel needs support with this, so she decides to investigate the issue a little further through conferring… 

We all know those readers who have a difficult time committing to a book. In fact, as readers ourselves, we both know we’ve sometimes been in Daniel’s shoes; buying or borrowing a book we couldn’t wait to dive into, and then later finding our interest or attention waning. In reading as in poker, knowing when “to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em” is a very real challenge. Students like Daniel, who abandon book after book, are sending a definite signal for help. Offering a series of focused conferences can be a lifesaver for these students.  Today, we offer some ideas about how you might structure a series of conferences to support readers like Daniel. Continue reading “Some of my students just hop from book to book! What can I do to support them?”

How can I use conferring to connect with students who are very new to English?

Since arriving in the country with her family just a few months ago, Renata’s days are filled with new and sometimes peculiar settings, people, smells, tastes, and expectations. Because Spanish is the language she’s grown up with, there are added layers of complexity that she must navigate in her new school as she tries to find entry points into conversation, social structures, and the academic curriculum of her second grade classroom. Since Renata isn’t yet reading or understanding much English, her teacher worries about how to help her make the most of independent choice reading each day and feels a bit stymied about what to say and do in a conference, since the two of them have so few words in common.

With an estimated 5 million English learners (ELs) currently in US classrooms (US Department of Education, 2015), roughly 1 out of every 10 students has a home language other than English. Embracing the presence of these immigrant, refugee, and US born language diverse learners into our classrooms is an opportunity to welcome world in, modeling for all students what it means to be a member of a culturally and linguistically diverse world. In today’s post we offer a few simple entry points for using conferring with English learners to build relationships, help them grow as readers, leverage their interests and strengths, and help them to help them become thriving members of the classroom community. Continue reading “How can I use conferring to connect with students who are very new to English?”

How can I support readers who pick the same types of books over and over again?

Question: I have some readers who pick the same book or types of books again and again. Shouldn’t I be pushing them toward more variety?

Juan is on a mission to know as much as he can about outer space. Day after day in his second-grade classroom, he immerses himself in books about space. Every single informational book he’s read in the past month has been about space. When he reads fiction, he prefers books that take place in space. If he can’t find a new book about space, he chooses to reread one he already spent time with. When Juan’s teacher suggests it may be time to move to a different topic, encouraging him instead to try out an ocean book or something from the sports bin, his interest in reading takes an immediate dive. It seems as though if Juan can’t be reading books about outer space, he’s not that interested in reading at all. 

Sometimes students fall so in love with a topic, a series, an author, or a genre that it seems nothing else will do for them as readers. As teachers who know the importance variety can play in developing well-rounded readers, it’s not uncommon that we try to push students in another direction and in doing so, unintentionally create disengagement. 

We worry less about about what many perceive as a reading rut – reading the same topic, book type, or title over and over again – and more about the level of engagement we see in a reader. Because Juan is so intentional and committed to his book choices, we don’t think he’s really in a rut. We think of a rut as a place we get stuck because we don’t know a better option. Students in true ruts look very different. They are students who aren’t truly engaged or excited about their reading. They are simply choosing the same types of texts over and over because they haven’t found or don’t know how to find a better or different option. These students will definitely benefit from our use of conferring time to support book choice. Continue reading “How can I support readers who pick the same types of books over and over again?”

Help! My students want to choose books I’m afraid are too hard!

Help! My students want to choose books I’m afraid are too hard!

As Carmen looks around her third-grade classroom, she sees her peers reading chapter books like Clementine, The One and Only Ivan, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and even Harry Potter. She mentioned to her teacher, Mr. Chen, that everyone’s books seem “so fat and brainy” and the books she’s reading look like “baby books.”  Most of her peer’s current reads exceed 100, 200, and even 300 pages. Carmen longs to read the same books as her friends. In Carmen’s opinion, most of the classroom library books at her current “level” look like they’re for much younger kids. Mr. Chen is at a loss. He knows that if Carmen is to grow as a reader, she’ll have to spend lots of time with books she can actually read and comprehend. But, Carmen is so determined to read what her friends are reading. Like many kids in her position, she just wants to fit in.

The last message we want to give readers is, “You can’t read this book. It’s too hard for you.” So, what can teachers like Mr. Chen do to help readers like Carmen find books they love, can read, and feel proud to hold in their hands?  Continue reading “Help! My students want to choose books I’m afraid are too hard!”

How do I Confer with a Student Who’s Reading a Book That I Haven’t Read?

Question: I haven’t read the book myself, so how will I be able to confer with a reader about it?

Sylvie’s fifth-grade students are voracious readers. On most days, at least one of her students brings a book into the classroom that is completely unfamiliar to her. Even though Sylvie has tried to keep up with her students’ book choices, she has found that it is just not possible to know every book that every child in her class is reading. She wants to confer with her students, but she isn’t sure how to talk with them when they are reading a book that is unfamiliar to her. 

Trying to read everything our students are reading is a noble goal, but it’s simply not realistic. In fact, if you have read every book your students have read, your students probably aren’t reading enough. There are just way too many great books in the world to limit the choices of our students to those we’ve read ourselves!  So, in this post, we offer some suggestions for how to engage in meaningful conversations with students, when they are reading something you have not read.  Continue reading “How do I Confer with a Student Who’s Reading a Book That I Haven’t Read?”

Tips to Help Students Develop the Independence They Need So You Can Confer

Question: I want to regularly confer with every reader in my classroom. But, how can I respond to students who persistently seek my attention while I’m trying to confer with others?

Aaron, a second grade teacher, is working to establish both independent reading and conferring in his classroom. However, as soon as he starts to dig in with one student, he finds himself interrupted by other students who want his attention. Joey needs to go to the restroom; Ava has can’t find her book bag; Isaac keeps tattling on the kids around him. Aaron is beginning to wonder if  his kids just aren’t ready for this level of independence yet, or if maybe they need something “more structured” than independent reading to do while he confers.

Because conferring calls on us to be wholeheartedly present with just one student at a time, What will the other kids be doing? often comes up when we talk with teachers about conferring. Our answer is clear and simple: they’ll be reading self-selected texts. After all, conferring is our primary means of reflecting on what students are doing as they read independently, so we can find meaningful ways to cultivate thriving reading lives. In other words, conferring is something we do while students read independently, in order to understand, affirm, and extend how they read independently.

However, helping your students learn to carry on with engaged independence is not something that just happens overnight. This is tricky, ongoing work that takes clarity, patience, and persistence on your part. To get you started we offer a handful of strategies that will work with any age or stage of reading development.  Continue reading “Tips to Help Students Develop the Independence They Need So You Can Confer”

Welcome from Kari & Christina

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 8.41.01 AMWelcome to our blog, To Know and Nurture a Reader! We’re so glad to have you join us.

A couple years ago, we began a writing journey together with the goal of supporting educators in creating a joyful conferring practice to support all of their readers. Fast forward to now, and we’re excited to say that our book, To Know and Nurture a Reader; Conferring with Confidence and Joy is available for preorder and will be in the hands of teachers in May.

As a complement to our book, we decided to launch this blog. To begin we offer a series of posts dedicated to supporting teachers as they tackle some of the predictable challenges of developing a thriving conferring practice.  Each blog post in the “Tackling the Tricky Parts Series” will focus on a common challenge we’ve encountered ourselves or that we’ve heard about in our work with teachers across the country. Each of the posts includes a question, a classroom scenario, and some ideas you might consider when tackling this challenge. The posts will fall into one of three categories:

  • Setting the Stage for Success
  • Meeting the Needs of Every Reader
  • Embracing the Messiness of Choice

But this isn’t a one way conversation.  We’d love to hear from you as well! What are the reasons you value conferring with readers? What do you find tricky or troublesome?  What works for you? What ideas do you have to share with other teachers that we haven’t thought of or included?  Please help keep the conversation alive by reaching out in the way that suits you best:


Here’s a preview of what you can look forward to in the coming weeks: 

Sunday, April 1st: Helping Students Develop Independence so You Can Confer

Sunday, April 8th: Conferring with Students Who Are Reading Books Unfamiliar to You

Sunday, April 15th: How might I use conferring to support students who are reading significantly below grade level?

Sunday, April 22nd: What can I do when students pick the same books over and over again?

Sunday, April 29th: How might I support English language learners through conferring, especially those with very limited English?

Sunday, May 6th: What do I do when a reader has trouble committing to a book?


We look forward to learning with you and hearing from you on this journey!

Kari & Christina