"The means is dialogue, the end is learning, the purpose is peace." ~ Founder Dr. Jane Vella

Posts tagged with "Safety"

Creating Trauma-Informed Spaces that Support Learning

Safety is a profound way of showing respect for the learner.

- Jane Vella

Trauma-informed practices are all the rage across disciplines as we learn more about trauma and how it impacts so many of us. Even while traveling on an airline recently (hardly the bastion of trauma-informed approaches), the Captain came on the loudspeaker to tell passengers there was turbulence ahead. He then stated, "while it may be uncomfortable, it will not be unsafe.” Knowing what to expect and that there was nothing to fear not only helped put passengers at ease when the bumps inevitably came along, it prevented me from ending up with a cup of hot coffee in my lap. Had the Captain had some trauma training? Possibly. Either way, I appreciated the heads up!

On a beautiful Vermont morning at the beginning of my journey to becoming a Dialogue Education (DE) practitioner and teacher, I learned about the six core principles of dialogue: inclusion, respect, relevance, engagement, immediacy, and safety. Right away I connected to the concepts of safety and respect as these are core to my work as a facilitator in the movement to end domestic and sexual violence. Our learning events already aimed to be as trauma-informed as possible. We did this by preparing participants when content contains descriptions of violence, letting them know they can take a break at any time for any reason, and even providing ample healthy snacks and beverages. "Phew! So much to learn. At least I’ve got that one down," I thought.

Over time as I began to incorporate what I learned at various DE trainings into my practice I realized how aligned these principles and practices are with trauma-informed approaches. If you look at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s, 6 key principles of a trauma-informed approach, the parallels are numerous. I discovered we could be doing much more in our training design to create trauma-informed spaces. 

Why do we need to go to such great lengths just to make people “feel good”? Aren’t we just soothing egos and catering to sensitivities? Hardly. Fear inhibits learning.

Below are four things I have learned to keep in mind to ensure enough safety is present to foster learning:

  1. Ensure everyone feels “safe enough.” We know from the research of James Zull and Barbara Fredrickson that positive emotions are far more effective in helping us learn. When the fear centers in the brain are triggered, we are not in the learning part of the brain. In DE, we talk about the difference between being “safe” and “safe enough.” Being trauma-informed in adult education isn’t about being so safe and comfortable that you don’t have authentic and meaningful dialogue. It’s about feeling safe enough to actually engage in challenging discourse in the first place
  2. Create a safe learning environment. When working with people who have experienced trauma (which is just about everyone, even though impacts and experiences will vary greatly) facilitators can think even more deeply about ways in which they can support learners to feel at ease. Creating learning environments in which you are engaging the 6 Core DE Principles in Action are just a few examples of how you might create a learning environment that is safe and respectful. Designing learning events using DE practices like transparency, which is also a principle of trauma-informed practice, helps to create trust and safety. It can be done in many ways including naming learning objectives and providing a training outline so that the learner knows just what they can expect. In addition, being transparent about what can’t change in your design in service of learning (perhaps the length of the day, or location) is equally important and respectful. Knowing what is expected and where boundaries lie helps a person who has experienced trauma to manage their own needs and responses effectively.
  3. Offer choice. One-way inclusion can be achieved is through providing choice to learners wherever it serves the learning. This can be as simple as providing three questions to consider and letting them decide which two they will answer or letting learners decide where to sit. For example, if you have ever worked with people who have experienced trauma such as victims of sexual assault or first responders, you may have learned many prefer to face the door. 
  4.  Make the beginning count. If meaningful dialogue and learning from that dialogue is our goal, then it is critical to ensure a positive and safe space from the beginning of your training to the end that respects the learner and their needs. The first minutes of your time with a group will set the tone to the end.

All we do as facilitators should be in service of the learning. If we can make shifts, big and small, that allow learners to feel safe enough to focus on grappling with content they need and to engage in dialogue, we will have achieved this. Much like the airline passengers, learners will know they might experience some discomfort as they learn and grow, but they won’t feel unsafe. Will they know you know a bit about trauma-informed approaches? Possibly. Either way, they’ll appreciate the heads up!

What do you do to help ensure safety in your learning events?

*****

Anne Smith (annepsmith@gmail.com) is an educator, facilitator and advocate working to uproot the causes of violence. Anne is currently the Director of Training and Leadership Development at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. In her practice she has experienced and shared the transformative impacts of applying the principles and practices of Dialogue Education to deepen learning outcomes. She continues to work hard to spread that potential for transformation!

A Structure for Effective Check-Ins*

While facilitating a day-long or week-long learning event, setting aside some time for a “check-in” can give participants the pause they need to process and prepare for what’s next. It allows them to reflect, re-energize, and reconnect before jumping back into a challenging sequence of learning tasks or agenda items. Yet too often, check-ins drift away from their intended purpose. One stray comment can derail the dialogue into a series of seemingly endless rabbit trails. This has led some facilitators to abandon the practice of formal check-ins altogether.

The solution is not to stop checking in. We can’t dismiss the importance of taking a moment to re-center in the middle of a long learning event or meeting. An effective check-in invites participants to evaluate how they are doing mentally, emotionally, relationally, and physically, both for their own sake and for the sake of the group. It can help them achieve their maximum level of engagement and learning by freeing them from what may be restricting or hindering them to explore or share fully.

The following is a simple structure you can use to check-in with participants between long learning tasks or agenda items, or at the beginning or end of a difficult day.

  1. Share one word that captures how you are feeling right now. For example: Restless.
  2. Summarize why you chose this word, and what that means for your learning and our time together today. For example: I’ve been exposed to some intriguing ideas today, but I’m anxious to see if they will actually work in my own context. I’m also a little restless due to sitting for so long.
  3. Conclude your update with one of the following statement          

I would like to be encouraged.

I would like to be challenged.

I would like to be encouraged and challenged.

I’ll pass.

  1. Receive encouragements or challenges others have for you.This process creates an environment where each member has an opportunity to self-reflect, share honestly, and invite input from others. Leaders gain valuable feedback, and participants are given permission to speak comforting or uncomfortable truths as needed. This practice also promotes accountability as people follow up on challenges to see if they have been completed. In this way, check-ins can catalyze groups to gain momentum into greater learning.

Effective check-ins are:

  • Safe, not stressful. Fully listen to each person’s check-in. Let your total attention be an act of love and acceptance. Don’t let people give advice during this time.
  • Transparent, but not too long. Authentic sharing takes time. But especially in a large group, check-ins can swallow up the majority of your meeting if left without limits. The structure above provides parameters for purposeful, succinct sharing.
  • Short, but not shallow. If check-ins are kept short, it might be difficult to go below the surface level. Think of the check-in as a summary of emotions and experiences related to your learning process.
  • Encouraging. If the person checking in would like to be encouraged, offer words of affirmation and support. Notice any signs of improvement you have observed. The more specific the encouragement, the better.
  • Challenging. If the person checking in would like to be challenged, offer a challenge. Make sure it’s both measurable and doable, and record it so that you can follow up later if appropriate. Then, give the person permission to accept or reject your challenge.

When you put these principles into practice, you’ll create an environment for learning where participants feel acknowledged, heard, supported, and challenged. You’ll receive real-time information about the emotions and experiences of the learners in the room, both individually and corporately. Ultimately, pausing for a check-in prepares participants and facilitators alike to re-engage more energetically and attentively in the tasks ahead!

What type of check-ins have you found helpful in your work?

*******

Andrew A. Boa (MA, Wheaton College Graduate School) is the author of Redeemed Sexuality (2017). He lives in California with his wife and young daughter.

*Adapted from Redeemed Sexuality by Andrew A. Boa. ©2017. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL, 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.

Disability Etiquette!

A while ago I had the joy of reading a fascinating theological book called Copious Hosting: A Theology of Access for People with Disabilities. In that gentle and prophetic text, Catholic disability-advocate Jennie Weiss Block sets out to define disability and accessibility theologically, explore the history and the concerns of the American disability-rights movement, and offer an inclusive theological account of disability based solidly in friendship and compassion. I highly recommend it! For now, I want to share ten tips for “disability etiquette,” as stated by Block (pp. 142-148).

  1. Do not make decisions that affect people with disabilities without their participation.
  2. Use common sense. People with disabilities are just ordinary people and want to be treated in the same way you would like to be treated. Act in the same way that you would normally act, appropriate to the situation at hand.
  3. Always speak directly to the person with the disability, not to the person accompanying him or her.
  4. Be aware that a person with a disability sometimes needs extra time. Make this accommodation willingly, in a way that does not make the person feel uncomfortable.
  5. If you are planning a meeting or event, try to anticipate what specific accommodations people with disabilities might need.
  6. It is fine to use common expressions like, “See you later,” or “I’ve got to run now.” What is not appropriate is to use disability slurs or descriptions that have negative meanings
  7. Never pretend to understand what a person is saying. Listen attentively and be patient.
  8. If a person uses a wheelchair, respect the wheelchair and the space around it. Do not touch the wheelchair, or lean on it, or push it without being asked.
  9. If an individual has a developmental disability, keep the communication direction and simple. Stay focused on the person, and give them time to understand and answer.
  10. Become knowledgeable about the different types of disabilities among the members of your own community, and offer the spiritual, moral, and physical things that are needed to offer these individuals access.

The first tip is most important: because we have agency like that of others even with our limitations, people with disabilities (or our caregivers) need to be involved in the choices that make up our lives. All ten tips for disability etiquette really fall under the second point, because people are people. Use good sense and compassion when you encounter us! We don’t bite; I promise.

Recall a time when one of these tips would have been helpful.

*****

Mike Walker (ma.walker@mail.utoronto.ca) is a theologian of disability and poet with spastic cerebral palsy from Prince Edward Island, currently based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He aims to be a practical theologian, and an advocate for both people with disabilities and others who are vulnerable; when not working, he loves to read, write, exercise, and hang out with friends. Feel free to contact Mike if you are interested in conducting an accessibility audit.