Navigating the Gray: Trauma in the Middle Grades

Our children have so much to tell us. Sometimes it is by expressing their feelings in big ways, other times it is through their actions, and how they direct their bodies to react; in other situations it is through eloping from a space, or shutting down, caught within a freeze. Frequently, as we have seen over the last two years of the pandemic, things play out with hurricane-force fusion, and all of these things come pouring in.

Every one one of them speaks about children’s needs.


In twenty-five years of teaching there have been so many miracles, but just as much loss.

Those losses–the lesson that bombed, the child who failed the class, a missed opportunity to see a student’s play or sports event, a parent who felt unheard, the argument you should not have engaged in, an observation that fell apart when the class missed a concept, students you felt you were unable to reach, a child who took their life…

Freeze…a child who took their life.

A child.


Thursday afternoon, raining; it was one of the last times I saw him.

He filled a 3pm hallway the way the sun can push into every corner of a room and flood it with light. He was smiles and wisecracks, shyness and brilliance, and he was in need.

And the signs were missed.

And he made a choice.

And then he was gone.

The ghost of him, of what he represented, would continue to haunt me as I considered what we as a grade level team, as a staff, might have been able to do differently. We weren’t sure, caught in a gray area between what we missed and what we understood, but we had to learn to think about student needs, about emotions, about the origins of each individual child differently to impact them in ways that pushed out well beyond the four walls of testing and academics.

When the news came it was met with resounding silence, followed by the grip of weeping and the broken voices of children. That loss, that death, that trauma was palpable, crashing through our spaces, transforming them. Many of us knew him as a student, but feeling his absence, we wondered how we could of done more to connect, to build…I’ve played that film in my head for years, or some scene from it, and every time I watch his last days there are choices that could have been made; they all lead, at least in the way I have scripted them in my grief, to him still being alive.

And that was just one day in a teacher’s life.

Caught in the middle, navigating the gray uncertainty, somewhere between trauma and triage, teachers are constantly navigating the social-emotional needs of children struggling to return to a new and different world while simultaneously struggling to manage lesson plans, curriculums, and compassion fatigue. The needs run the spectrum, and cover everything from sexual assault, a parent losing a job, the death of a pet, to family members dying from Covid, fights on the playground, inappropriate touching on the bus, and suicide. The world wants educators to get off the Zoom and Google Meet screens, and back to in-person classrooms every day. Middle school educators share:

“I’m not a therapist, and I’m not touching that…”

“She’s a trauma kid, what can I do being a teacher?”

“Is any of this supposed to get easier, the needs and outbursts just keep coming.”

“He just has anger issues, a lot of them; he needs a parent and some real help.”

“I’m pregnant; he threatened me with a pencil; I’m not going right back in there.”

“I’m at my end, like I’m done, and I just don’t have enough for myself and my family, let alone enough to deal with everything the kids are going through.”

“That’s the job of an admin, or a therapist or school counselor–I’m not trained for it, and I have 27 other students; how am I supposed to give it all to just that one every time they go off?”

You see where this is headed?

Teachers are frayed, worn thin, and burned out, bounced back and forth between systems, policies, protocols, and their own life needs. They want to serve, they want to educate and inspire kids…but save lives while navigating the realities of trauma and emotional dysregulations?

In our profession, the word trauma is about as underused as it is overused. But one idea remains fixed–children will always be in need, and as we are called to serve it will always be our role to meet those needs. While not every incident is a traumatic crisis event in the true definition of the word crisis (“a time of great danger, difficulty, or doubt…”), for that child (or children) the issue becomes a time of great emotion, quite possibly the most important moment in their life. It requires time, understanding, listening, empathy – already in rare supply with everything else we juggle. If we are that worn out, imagine how pushed to the brink these children are.

Remember Sovanne?

He was 11.

He only had 11 years for this world to break him up into pieces, and make him feel like he had no other options but to take himself out of the story when he still had so much to give, and so much to say.

Answering the Call

The following is adapted from my RESPOND Method for helping middle school staff when they are the initial response working with a student in crisis:

Read the room for safety–can you take the first steps to de-escalate and support the student, or do you need to have another support member (school counselor, school psychologist, behavior interventionist, grade level administrator) called”

Engage the student and validate the emotion as you observe it; frame a response equal to the visible needs (i.e.-”I can see you want some space right now,” or “I can see you’re mad about _,” or “I can tell you are really angry right now and that is okay; you are showing me you are upset, and it’s okay to feel that way, but it is not okay to throw a pencil at someone.”)

Support them and restate what you hear them say when they do verbalize a need (i.e.: “Thanks for telling me that; I heard you say you want your laptop, and you will throw a chair if you don’t get it.”) Be an active listener, and don’t forget that they get talked at all day, and sometimes active silence is the best tool for a high stakes moment.

Provide an opportunity for them to have a way forward–use their flash pass if they have one, a break in a calming corner, a walk, an alternate activity (listening to music, coloring/drawing, reading a book, using a sensory item to channel their big feelings, an alternate location with staff eyes on them), or perhaps a safe space adult who can come and work with them.

Open the door, and keep it open–a counselor or administrator may come in to support or take the lead in the intervention and de-escalation work, but you should always be an active part in the solution and processing of the event; as the event gets resolved the student deserves to know that classroom door remains open for them. When they have de-escalated from whatever they were going through, make sure you are there to help turn that page with them. The child must always know you play a role, not only in their academic success, but in their healing.

Name the behavior, as well as the expectations around it–within the framework of honoring where they are, and what is or is not able to happen in the space. (i.e.: “Yes, you want to hit me right now, and that is why I am over here, away from you. I am giving you space, and I am going to set a timer for five minutes and sit over here. I want you to know you have a choice here, but we also both have to be safe. Can you tell me you understand, or shake your head yes if this makes sense?”)

De-escalate as you are able, based on the student’s needs and the circumstances presented before you; safety of the class and staff is paramount. This is most likely office managed, and will require support from your school counselor, administrator, and/or school psychologist.

Our middle students, caught so tightly in that gray, are speaking to us in so many ways:

“I don’t like it when you stand so close.”

“That’s my freakin hat, you shouldn’t have taken my hat, it was hanging on my chair, and it didn’t do anything, give it back.”

“I can’t sit still, and I get angry all the time. They called me a spaz.”

“Go away, now.”

“My grandma was sick, and she died in my room, and now I see her a lot.”

“That teacher said I talked funny with my accent.”

“I wonder what it would feel like if I cut my neck with these scissors.”

“I’m afraid to go home; there’s something bad there.”

“They keep calling me gay, all the time because my nails are painted, so what, they’re my nails, and they should shut their mouths.”

Building the trauma-sensitive space

Your classroom/office can become a trauma-sensitive space for any student, at any age, in need. Consider the following ideas:

  • Cubbies, lockers, student shelves can be a place of refuge and re-focus; allow students to place a family picture there, or an image or item that provides feelings of joy and comfort, and can be used to refocus their energy. Create an organized, welcoming physical space separate from the rest of the environment (small tented rest stop, calming corner, safe space, zen-den); the classroom itself can incorporate messaging around behavior expectations and managing feelings, and social-emotional tools for coping and emotional regulation.
  • Student voice about its design, as well as expectations around its use, will help to build trust and agency with your students.
  • Consider natural, dimmable, lighting in the space that reinforces mindful breathing and a sense of calm (shades of greens and blues), as well as different types of seating (bean bag chairs, rocker chairs, wobble stools, soft carpet squares, stuffies, etc)
  • Informally monitor and document the use of this space in order to inform adjustments and upgrades to the practice.

This work is demanding, and initially takes stakeholders from students, families, and staff being a part of building a framework for the school mission/vision, followed by establishing, in action and messaging with those same partners, what the school’s climate and culture goals are for this work. These initial phases are followed by a team(s) implementing actionable strategies around this work, and staff dedicated to making sure it is being monitored, with data being collected from all stakeholder groups.

For Sovanne, for your students, families, and colleagues, you owe it to them, and you owe it to yourself. You may be focused on excellent, first instruction, and avoiding a disruption to learning, which are key factors, but this emotional work will catch up to you, or you will catch up to it, and when it arrives you must be as prepared as possible to not react, but respond.

Matthew J. Bowerman (he/him) is married, and a father of six. He is a School Administrator (Principal Intern) in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, and has served in education for over twenty five years. He has taught Language Arts, Special Education, Reading, and Theatre at the middle, high, and college levels. He is an Emmy award-winning writer/director for the short film “BusSTOP,” addressing the bullying crisis in public schools, and his book, Heartleader, on K-12 love leadership, school engagement, and trauma-responsive approaches is available from Codebreaker Inc and Amazon. You can find him for speaking engagements and professional development trainings @MJBowerman and