How to Get Curious (Not Furious) With Students

It is so easy as a teacher to become extremely frustrated and sometimes even angry at students who are creating chaos in the classroom. So often, teachers can see the external signs of destructive behavior but not recognize what may be underlying that behavior.  It is why we all should be looking at our students through trauma-informed lenses. 

Curious means you don’t take student’s behavior personally

This article by Rebecca Alber, first published on, gives a bit of insight into how teachers can view students who are acting out.

I’m not an expert when it comes to identifying trauma in students, but I’ve spent enough time in classrooms to recognize stress- and trauma-related behaviors. During my tenure as a high school teacher, I wanted to better support my students who were struggling emotionally. This prompted me to seek literature and training.

My work now is in teacher education, and I have continued to educate myself in this arena so that I could inform the novice teachers I work with as they bring challenging situations from their own classrooms to our discussions in the university classroom.

counselor and student (photo courtesy of their students act out, I propose the novice teachers do the following: Get curious, not furious. Let’s explore what that means. Rather than a teacher resorting to traditional discipline measures, it behooves the student greatly for the teacher to realize classroom outbursts, verbal defiance, or volatile anger can be symptomatic of repeated exposure to neglect, abuse, or violence. Traumatic stress can also manifest as withdrawal or self-injury.

The Brain

As we know, neuroscience is informing the field of education. A good number of us educators as of recent have been reading about what routine distress or trauma can do to the brain and to learning. It basically shuts it down. When we ask students to do high-level tasks, such as problem solving or design thinking, it’s nearly impossible if they are in a triggered state of fight, flight, or freeze. This trauma state may look like defiance or anger, and we may perceive this refusal as choice, but it is not necessarily so.

Schools and districts are participating in professional development on trauma-informed teaching, as the benefits are clear. According to research conducted by the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children, here are a few of the key benefits of becoming a trauma-informed school:

  • Improved student academic achievement
  • Less student absences, detentions, and suspensions
  • Reduction of stress for staff and students and less bullying and harassment
  • Improved teacher sense of job satisfaction and safety

Start Here

As you seek to learn more about trauma-sensitive teaching, you can also explore the curious-not-furious maxim I offer to novice teachers. Getting curious on the part of the teacher looks like this: Why might the student be behaving this way? What might be some contributing factors? Might this be a reaction to fear or insecurity? Might she be scared, hungry, lonely, or tired? Instead of defaulting immediately to a disciplinary measure (detention, off to the principal’s office, a time out), the teacher chooses to first ask the child: How are you? Are you okay today? How can I help? Is there anything you would like to talk about?

Some may be thinking that this isn’t in the job description of a teacher (I am not a counselor or therapist.) But this isn’t about saving anyone, I assure you. In fact, I see teachers burn out, in part, because teachers can get into thinking that they can save troubled students, and when they can’t, they believe they have failed at their job. But here’s an important truth to remember: We can’t heal or save anyone except ourselves.

Creating Classrooms of Care

What is this truly about? It’s about us moving more towards what I like to call classrooms of care — an antithetical turn or very intentional detour from the institution of schooling. When we do this, we humanize ourselves with our students and create spaces for them to do the same, going beyond the singular dimension of “teacher” and singular dimension of “student.” A classroom no longer seems sterile, regimented, or threatening. In this transformation, more and more classrooms become communities of care, discovery, and learning (for students and teachers).

When teachers get curious, not furious, they don’t take the student’s behavior personally, and they don’t act on anger. They respond to student behaviors rather than react to them. They are then able to seek what the next steps might be for supporting a child in distress and emotional pain (a talk after class, arranging a meeting with the school counselor, etc.) According to the research of Adena Klem and James Connell, students who perceive a teacher as caring have higher attendance, better grades, and are more engaged in the classroom and at school.

In my 20 years as an educator, and from observing numerous classrooms and teachers, I do know this: Compassion and care can transform learning spaces. In the words of the Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, “Our society tends to dismiss kindness as a minor virtue, rather than the tremendous force it can truly be.”

What an innovative idea to become curious and not furious.

I know that when a classroom is out of control it is hard to be compassionate but maybe this can be very preserving for teachers not to personalize the issues or get angry at their students.  Yet we need to respond with clarity, understanding and strategies to help students regain their calm and brain regulation by caring for them in their tough moments.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network


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