Are the Debates Teachable Moments?

Let me start with the answer to the question posed in this title: Yes, debates can most assuredly be teachable moments and more importantly, there is real value in helping children process them effectively with quality educators in a school setting.

Let’s put politics aside (assuming that is even possible) and ask the question this way: What can our children learn from the debates related to the upcoming election?  What can they learn about themselves and their peers?

For me, these debates can be evaluated on several levels but whatever level one chooses, they seem to generate strong feelings and thoughts. 

Debate One

Children likely reacted to the argumentative style exhibited in the first debate and interruptions of each candidate as the other spoke. Add to this that the moderator, who had rules, could not get the debate under control, hard as he tried.  (He was like a teacher in an unruly classroom where the teacher has lost the ability to get the students to engage.)

For some children, the debate sounded like fighting, and that in and of itself may have been a trigger of memories of uncomfortable fights within their families and communities.  For children who struggle with rules and rule obedience, one wonders if the flaunting of rules messaged that rules don’t matter – at least for some people.   And, the debates messaged about personality and tone and style.  And, make no mistake about it: the most knowledgeable and well-educated teacher of substance may irritate children if he/she is disrespectful, dismissive, nasty and aggressive. 

Some watchers had to turn off that first debate or walk away. Others were left with nagging negative feelings.  Autonomic nervous system were and perhaps will are on high alert.  

Ask: Were any of these issues processed with children in schools? Were I a guessing person, the answer would be no – in part because schools are online or hybrid and changing up the curriculum might be difficult and hard to do in terms of getting the right non-political pitch and approach.  And, there is the issue of time and preparation.  

But there is an opening for students to process the events if they can get in touch with what the debate evoked in them.  Think about how feeling identification (both positive and negative) would be beneficial.  And The Feeling Alphabet Activity Set could have been used to help with that effort, adapted to be sure.

Debate Two

Yes, there were different parties: a woman and a man.  And, at least at first listen, the tone and style were different – but not that different.   And, there was less in terms of personal and family attacking.  But, make no mistake about it: this debate was also laced with nastiness.  And there was rule disobedience.  

Students could compare and contrast debate style within this second debate and between the first and second debates.  That would be a useful exercise.  And it begs for us to ask:  Who was easiest to listen to? Who shared the most substance (assuming its veracity)?  Who showed respect for others?

But, for an educational perspective, I cannot help but focus on the fly on the head of the VP’s white hair for two seconds.  Surely, that can make children and adults laugh. And, it fosters a wide range of funny thoughts:  Did the VP know it was there?  Could you feel a fly on your head?   Why would a fly stay in place for so long?  And, were you a conspiracy theorist, was the fly actually a tracking device or a hearing device or a device to get signals (like positive or negative beeps to answers given)?  Imagine children drawing and writing about the fly on the head – that would be a creative exercise.

For all students, finding the flies painted by well-known artists on their portrait paintings is an engaging activity with many opportunities to reflect on the “why” question.  Why did these artists paint flies and what meaning can be ascribed to them? The answers have modern analogues and might surprise you with their current relevance! Enjoy reading more about flies in famous paintings in the article below.

In Sum

Our children need us to help them process our complex and difficult world.  With school interruptions and now online, hybrid or in person learning which works in varying degrees with different students, we need to take affirmative steps to give students the tools to manage what they are seeing and hearing day in and day.   out.  We cannot assume that our not talking about what is occurring will make it go away.  Indeed, we do way better processing with children and at a time like this, processing feelings could not be more important.   Taking the time to turn the debates into teachable moments will help our children understand their feelings and then be more able to be ready, willing and able to learn.  At a time like this in our nation, turning any of the negative or difficult moment or events into teachable moments is a positive.   And, The Feeling Alphabet Activity Set, adapted to different settings, is one tool that can make these teachable moments possible.

Share your thoughts if you try this and we’d welcome including your suggestions so other educators can learn from you.  

A Very Disorienting Presidential Debate

By Ed K.S. Wang, M.S., Psy.D.

Even as a passive observer, the debate was extremely disorienting due to the lack of civility that I am not accustomed to in past presidential debates.  I was feeling irritated, restless, and felt my blood pressure was rising.  I was so stressed that the one behavior I could manage was “flight” from my distress.  I turned off the TV thirty minutes into the debate.

Thinking of my physical and emotional responses, I thought about the reason behind writing the Feeling Alphabet Activity Set with Karen Gross.  We trust the scientific explanation of stress and the benefit of stress management.  Paying attention to our feelings and naming them make us less likely to get caught up with negative feelings and thoughts.  This mindful action helped to alleviate some degree of distress in the stressful situation that I experienced. 

The Feeling Alphabet Activities Set is a pathway towards the practice of mindfulness.  Naming feelings is the first step into processing those feelings with associated thoughts and behaviors.  Sometimes it is hard to see the connection between feelings, thoughts and behavior because all three can happen so quickly like during the evening of the debate.  But after I turned the TV off, I had time to connect my feelings, thoughts and behavior to prevent my negative feelings took over. 

By paying attention and acknowledging my negative feelings of anger, shame and frustration as a result of the uncivil debate and my conviction that this is not what our country is, positive feelings and thoughts of hope, change and gratitude for what good there is about this country re-surfaced.  Such positive feelings, though miniscule, helped to counterbalance the negative ones.  Some peace of mind is so important during this stressful time in our country.

It’s events like this that remind me of why Karen and I wrote the Feeling Alphabet Activity Set (buy through this site).

Edward K. Wang, a grandparent and psychologist, promotes the social and emotional well-being of children across the globe.  As the Director of Policy and Planning for the Division of Global Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, a former member of the National Advisory Council, Department of Health and Human Services and a public steward of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, he continues to call attention to the resiliency and hope, growth and healing of mental ill adults and children.

Trauma Tools As Schools Stagger Forward

In Japanese culture, there is a tradition that when things break, they are not discarded. They are repaired with gold and accompanied with the phrase: More Beautiful for Being Broken. Hold that thought.

School Reopening Confusion (to state it nicely)

There is deep confusion about schools reopening this fall. Some schools are doing totally online learning. Others are having in person learning. Still others are using a hybrid approach. All involved in education are experiencing anxiety of one sort or another. Teachers and professors are worried about their own health and that of their families. Parents are worried about the health of their children and how the working parents will manage complex school schedules. Some are worried about the quality of education that will be provided, particularly in the context of online learning. Students are worried too; they have not been in school for a while. There will be new rules if school is in person; they may not be up to speed academically; sports and play seem like they will be missing. Some kids realize that they simply cannot adapt to online learning and they will fall farther behind; they won’t attend or they won’t engage.

It’s quite the mess. And, we have not done sufficient professional development in anticipation of reopening — in whatever form it takes. We have been so focused on physical well being that psychological well being has taken a back seat, if it is in the car at all. And, while we can differ as to the definition of trauma in the educational context, perhaps we can agree that many students and teachers and parents are experiencing trauma now — with the pandemic and with the racial tensions and with the economic uncertainty and with no end in sight on which we can rely.

Add to all this that whatever planning has been done has often not been inclusive. It has involved some groups within the educational community and not others. Think about planning the return to school without active involvement of school nurses. Think about decisions made at the superintendent level, bypassing teachers and just informing them of this and that decision. Think about not engaging older students at the college level. Ponder the NCAA not taking any strong positions or creating any coordinating committee for collegiate sports. It is a problem with many tentacles. Some decisions are made by too few. Some are abdicating decision-making. We are losing our balance.

Solutions: Yes, They Exist

It is not too late to ponder giving teachers and parents more tools to help them cope with their own trauma and that of their students/children. These tools exist but the problem is that we have not shared these tools widely among teachers. To that end, here are some tools that I have created (one with Dr. Ed Wang), all of which will be available before the start of school (assuming restart is in September). They are offered here, not in order of importance or value or utility. They are offered as ways teachers and parents/caregivers can help students get ready learn, to engage. These are tools to help control the autonomic nervous system responses. These are tools that use our knowledge about trauma’s impact on our brains and our bodies. These are tools that can help us now.


Consider purchasing this right-priced book: Tongue Twisters and Beyond: Words at Play. It can be preordered at or on Amazon. Bulk sales available too from Northshire Books. The book is filled with tongue twisters and word games and spoonerisms. Students can read in shapes (yes really). And tongue twisters (which are actually brain twisters) allow us to laugh and make mistakes — adults and children alike. They open neural pathways; they enable distraction and at the same time, they involve learning. There are new words and efforts to enunciate and bring creativity into play.


Consider downloading The Feeling Alphabet Activity Set (co-authored with Dr. Ed Wang). This allows students (and parents/teachers) to identify their negative and positive feelings. The point is that the start of addressing trauma is to name what one is occurring within oneself and recognize what one is feeling. There is no way to tame trauma (and feelings) if you can’t name it (them). This activity set also has a myriad of suggestions for play too — coloring in letters (or copying their design), charades, feeling word searches, feeling thought bubbles. It will be available on at the end of August, and it too will be right priced to make it accessible to many.


There are instructions for completing Trauma Responsive Tool Boxes, which can be filled with a myriad of different items that can be adapted to the age and stage of the user. Use of what’s in the toolbox is beneficial but so is just seeing the tool box and recognizing that others see what is occurring and have a name for it and own it and recognize it. Completed toolbox samples will also be available. These will be at


Consider purchasing We See You/Te Vemos. This is a bilingual book (English and Spanish) that is printed on indestructible paper. Perfect for the pandemic — it can be cleaned off and wiped down. It can be read to and with younger children. It can be used with older children to learn a new language. It has suggestions in English and Spanish for games that are keyed into the book. Then, there are multi-racial characters and the theme is object constancy, something that is critical in this time of change and loss and separation. It is available at Amazon and


For adults who want to learn more about trauma and trauma symptomology and strategies for its amelioration (it never disappears), there is my new adult book: Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door: Strategies and Solutions for Educators PreK-College. It was released on June 22, 2020 by Teachers College Press and is available through them at or at Amazon. There is an ebook version too. The key to the book is that it grounds theory in practice and has concrete suggestions that can be replicated and scaled and adopted or adapted.

Consider these all a starter set of suggestions for things that can be used with and for students and adults to ease school re-entry. Consider them ways to alleviate trauma symptomology. Consider them as tools that are trauma responsive.

To return to the opening image and Kinsugi reference, I want to note that there are ways to address trauma and its symptoms. And while we never bounce back to where we were, we can bounce forward. The described tools give me hope — hope that we can navigate these troubled time and facilitate student academic and psychosocial success. Perhaps these tools can be items that message: more beautiful for being broken.

You’re Invited to a Virtual Book Launch Monday, June 22 at 5 pm EST

This is the official Virtual Launch of Karen Gross’ new book, Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door: Strategies and Solutions for Educators PreK-College, released by TCPress on June 19, 2020.

Join us for a panel discussion and giveaways!

The Zoom launch will have a 30-minute panel discussion of this new book and its potential to facilitate student success. Event will be hosted by Brian Ellerbeck, the Acquisitions Editor at TC Press. Panelists will be Marie Cini, Allyson Hoffman and Gill Hunter, each extraordinary educators representing different segments of the academic pipeline from elementary school to adult education.

Three copies of Trauma Doesn’t Stop will be given to 3 attendees based on a random drawing and 10 takeaway gifts will be sent to the first 10 people signing into the Zoom book launch. The author will introduce the panel and will be available for informal chat time during the Zoom launch. We look forward to this launch on Zoom and to sharing this important new and timely book with you all.  See you on June 22nd (a Monday) at 5:00 EST.

Hosted by Teachers College Press and Karen Gross
(917) 363-4872

The book is available for pre-sale at and other locations. Official pub date is June 19, 2020:

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Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door

My newest book with Columbia Teachers College Press and a sidequel to my book, Breakaway Learners, is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Columbia Teachers College Press.  Publication date is June 2020, in time for faculty and staff development and classroom use for Academic Year 2020 – 2021.

The title to this blog is the book’s title, and the book probes and offers suggestion for how to facilitate student success for those students PreK—College who have experienced trauma.  Real in the trenches suggestions at macro and micro levels, all grounded in their and empiricism.

The ebook is discounted at the TCPress site.  And TCPress will provide steep discounts for sales to groups or sales for events in which I participate, whether by SKYPE or ZOOM or FaceTime.  Reach out to me or Michael McGann at the Press.  I did a webinar from the Yes We Must Coalition on the book and it is available for a free download from their website.

Continue reading “Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door”

We Don’t Teach Educators Enough About Trauma

Hardly a week goes by without some trauma in the US.  Some events are nature made; some are human-made. There appear to be fewer and fewer “safe” places and spaces.  The usually “safe” places – schools, universities, churches, concert venues, public streets – are not safe. 

And, there is constant media coverage of whatever horrific event is going on, making their reach even broader.  There are also anniversaries of past traumatic events – from Sept. 11th or Kent State.  Both children and adults are affected, those who are at the events and those who know people at the events and those feeling the impact of the events from afar.

Add to these large “T” events, defined as big one point in time trauma, this reality: there are a growing number of young people who are experiencing small “t” trauma in their daily lives. These are young people exposed to drugs, shootings, parental or guardian or familial abuse, hunger, homelessness, and illness (one’s own and that of family members).  The exposure to these traumas change a child’s brain hard wiring and can affect their health and well-being through adulthood.  Yes, really.  And small “t” trauma is “big” in terms of its effect.

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Coronavirus, Trauma and Children

We read and hear about the coronavirus almost every minute of every day.

As an educator, I read about how educational institutions are preparing for the virus in the US; some student abroad programs are being cancelled. Student enrollment going forward will change as some students will struggle to gain access to the US. The role and use of online learning will take on new meaning and new dimensions, even among those who were reticent. One nation closed schools for a month.

As a person with expertise in trauma and its impact on students across the US educational pipeline (see: Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door (TCPress June 2020 with pre-order), this virus and the threat of its spread has me worried. As I reflect on students, teachers and families, I know that prior trauma can be retriggered by new trauma. And the new trauma doesn’t have to be in our backyard. (Were I an economist, I’d be fretting about trade and the markets.) And teachers/professors will feel the impact of the virus even if the virus has not directly touched their community. It will touch their classrooms, dining halls, residential halls, athletic events, student centers and health facilities.

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Trauma and Adult Learners

We live in a world surrounded by trauma. There’s no doubt about it. 

The trauma comes from a myriad of sources including childhood adverse experiences, natural disasters and shootings in locations commonly considered safe.   The fact is that trauma produces symptoms.

While symptomology differs from person to person (even within the same family), it affects the capacity of individuals of all ages to learn and retain information.

Here’s why.

When a person experiences trauma, it affects their bodies and their brains. The immediate response to trauma is autonomic and when our nervous system is activated, we cease using the cognitive portions of our brain. We use our primitive brain to survive.  And, as we all know, we need our cognition to be operational because that is where most learning is enabled. 

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I Beg to Differ on How to Deal with Trauma “Anniversaries”

I have been focused of late on trauma and its profound effects on students across our educational system. Most recently, I have addressed how to think about trauma “anniversaries” and the complexities that are entailed in remembering and honoring and commemorating natural disasters and other unspeakable events like school shootings, suicides and deaths by overdose.

In particular, I have been thinking about the need to plan commemorative events because there are so many people affected and so many possible approaches that we need to reflect long and hard on how to do what is best for survivors. Whole communities are involved.

It is in this context that I read a piece published by the Viva Center, founded in 2010 and dedicated to addressing mental health. Here is the link to the article that made, in several words, my blood boil:

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Here Are 5 Things We Should Do To Improve the US Education System

An Interview with Penny Bauder (originally published on Medium)

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Karen Gross. Karen has taught and continues to teach across the educational pipeline. A former college president and Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, she currently serves as Senior Counsel to Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners Company, and as an Affiliate to the Penn Center for MSI’s at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She blogs/writes for many education outlets including WPo, InsideHigherEd, Chronicle, Aspen Journal of Ideas, DiverseEducation, and MEDIUM.

Karen is the author of numerous children’s books, and her mission is to encourage imagination, creativity, and inspiration through humor and fun, all while learning. She is also the author of the adult book, Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students, which provides a pathway for improving the educational success of low income, first generation, minority students. In addition, she’s the author of the forthcoming book called Educating for Trauma: Educating for Student Success which will be published by Columbia Teachers College Press in 2020.

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