Triggered in the Classroom: Six Tips for Educators to Help Identify Triggers and Manage Responses

Triggered at Work Stress Teacher

Teaching is a profession that requires constant consideration for, and monitoring of, others’ emotional well-being. Educators are often tasked with assisting students in acknowledging, validating, and regulating their emotions. When faced with a myriad of challenges every day themselves, educators may begin to experience intense emotions, feeling frustrated or drained by commonplace situations such as a parent who comes in to talk five minutes before class starts or the student who constantly talks back. These everyday occurrences can act as triggers that may lead individuals to act in ways in which they otherwise may not. The good news is that there are strategies educators can implement to help them in these trying situations.

Here are six tips to help educators identify their triggers, manage their emotions, and respond in more appropriate ways when confronted with challenges in the classroom.

What is a trigger?

A trigger is anything from a memory, experience, or event that leads to a heightened emotional state. Triggers can be people, places, things, smells, words, or even colors that cause an automatic emotional or behavioral response. Common situations that trigger intense responses that might occur in the classroom include unjust treatment, challenged beliefs, loss of control, disapproval, or criticism.

What are some typical responses to triggers?

When triggered, someone might feel a range of emotions including anger, disappointment, frustration, embarrassment, or sadness. These feelings might prompt individuals to act in ways in which they otherwise would not, including engaging in a debate or argument, saying things they might later regret, freezing up in fear, or leaving the situation altogether. These typical reactions can be categorized as freeze, fight, or flight responses. It is important to know how to identify triggers and manage responses. Consider the following tips to support you in this work.

Six Tips to Help Identify Triggers and Manage Responses

1. Identify Your Triggers

It is important to first take time to think about what triggers you. Perhaps it is a student who constantly disrupts the rest of the class or an administrator who only notices your challenges and not your strengths. Maybe you are triggered by a parent who sends an email every day with their complaints, questioning your decisions and qualifications as an educator. Perhaps it is a colleague who makes comments that disrespect students and their worth.

As you begin to evaluate your triggers, you may find that there are several; this is ok. In fact, it is quite common. Identifying your triggers is the first step in managing responses to them and regulating the power they have.

2. Get to Know Your Triggers

This step can be very challenging and requires some deep introspection. Now that you have identified your triggers, you can begin to consider their origins. Some might stem from childhood experiences and others may be a result of an individual’s core values and beliefs.

Perhaps you are triggered by an administrator who only focuses on your challenges and not your strengths because your parents did the same thing. You may hold a belief that all students are worthy and should be given respect as a contributing member of the classroom community; when a colleague expresses thoughts that contradict this, you are likely to feel triggered.

3. Name Your Triggers When They Happen

Although it may seem obvious or even trivial, naming your triggers when they arise can be a very helpful step in managing your responses. When you begin to feel yourself entering a heightened emotional state, uttering a simple phrase such as, “Hello, trigger” or “That’s a trigger” can help the brain shift from an emotional to a cognitive state, providing you with the mental fortitude to respond in more appropriate ways.

4. Acknowledge and Validate Your Emotions

As you would often assist your students in doing, acknowledging and validating your feelings can play an important role in establishing and maintaining a sense of calm. Use self-talk to help you recognize and authenticate your feelings. You might say something to yourself like, “You are feeling frustrated. It’s ok to feel frustrated.” or “That made you feel very sad. It’s okay to be sad.”

5. Acknowledge Your Responses

Just as it is important to develop awareness of the trigger itself and its causes, it is equally vital to recognize the ways in which you might typically respond to these triggers. Do you start an argument or a debate in an attempt to prove a point? Perhaps you find yourself frozen and unable to engage at all. Maybe you leave the situation entirely. When coupled with an understanding of the trigger and its causes, a recognition of one’s response to triggers often brings awareness that can empower you to respond differently in the future.

6. Explore New Responses

Awareness of your triggers, their causes, and your typical responses can be empowering, helping you to respond differently to future triggers. Taking deep breaths or engaging in grounding techniques such as mindfulness practices can hold the space for you to clear your mind, calm your emotions, and allow you to respond in a more healthy, productive manner. The next time you begin to feel triggered, take a moment to clear your mind, focus on your breathing, and find center to help you process your thoughts and feelings and respond most effectively.

Identifying triggers and their causes and pausing to ground oneself before responding will likely take time and concentrated effort, but the hard work and dedication will not only improve your personal emotional well-being, but will make for more positive interactions with students, families, colleagues, and administrators. Introspection and personal growth can be very challenging, but the reward is definitely worth it!

About the Author


Heather White, EdS, is a Montessori in-home teacher and nanny, a Montessori educational consultant for the Andrew’s Institute, a Montessori educator for adult learners, and a volunteer moderator for the Montessori at Home 0 – 3 Facebook page. Formerly, she was a Montessori teacher, Lower Elementary coordinator, and associate head of school. She also has experience as a School Psychologist intern. She is AMS credentialed (Early Childhood, Elementary I). Contact her at hpratt@stetson.edu.

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