A Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning Framework for Building Relationships: the IPP

Each school year we begin again.  And when we do, The First Principle & Foundation reminds us to consider our gifts, remain open to where the spirit might be calling us, and be grateful, “For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God” (Fleming, SJ).  Everything.

Hopefully, when we consider the Ignatian concept of the presupposition of positive intent, we find the tensions and contradictions in our world complementary to our educational vocations.  Existing as rigorous college preparatory institutions whose aim is to help students be at home with God.  Working with curriculum content and skills while being present to one another as we move through trauma caused by the global pandemic.  Using social media while realizing that it unhealthily shapes realities that are not truthful.  Building community at school by using conversation frameworks while being aware that in the world outside school, businesses profit by dividing us.

A few years ago, as I sat in a school leadership meeting where we were developing a response to our school closures because of the global pandemic, a well-intentioned colleague reflected, “We have pivoted so well to remote learning, this should forever be an option for our students – learning at home.”

The comment invited me to reflect on the design and intent of our school.  We help students come together, build and practice habits of being good citizens with one another, and create a loving community.  Like our democracy, school is an experiment.  And while remote learning is a gift we have used to help students learn during times when it is not possible to safely gather, that gift belongs in its proper place.

In schools, we are at our best when we are together, collaborating, and learning – especially during times which cause us significant trauma.  To do this, our school uses many frameworks, one of which is the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (IPP).  Created in 1993, this framework “was a timely response to numerous requests for help on how educators could teach in a more distinctly Ignatian manner and in the process, impart to their students the Ignatian world view and values discussed in an earlier seminal document called The Characteristics of Jesuit Education”(1986) (Go, SJ and Atienza 1) .

Created out of the spirit the Exercises, the components of the IPP have come to mirror the qualities of the ideal relationship between a retreat director and a retreatant during the Spiritual Exercises.  The IPP framework for teaching and learning invites teachers and students to be in relationship with one another.  And now, more than ever, as we continue to move through trauma caused by the global pandemic and socio-political and economic forces that divide us, it is important that we practice being in relationship.  Consistently using the components of the IPP framework is predictable and supportive – trauma-informed – and helps us be in relationship with one another.


How are you?  Setting the Context

Relationships require time for meaningful encounters to develop.  And every meaningful encounter surely begins with a story.  Someone sharing and someone listening.  I remember when doing the Spiritual Exercises, my retreat director, John Craig, SJ, would begin our weekly meetings by storytelling.  He would either talk with me about what was most immediately happening in his life, or he would ask, “How are you?”

We shared with and listened to one another.  How are you?  This question opens the door to storytelling and it is an invitation for cura personalis.  While it’s a question we often times answer quickly with “fine” or “good, you?” the question invites us into something deeper:  to pause, reflect, and respond with a story or two about our lives – what’s really going on?  The question also invites the asker to practice radical listening.

At the beginning of a school year, storytelling is important.  During our new Ignatian educator and mentor onboarding retreat and in monthly meetings, we schedule time to prioritize storytelling, and we use prompts to help us tell our stories.  We ask things like:

  • Review your experiences with our school so far.  Based upon your experiences at De Smet Jesuit, including the interview process up until now, what are you most excited about?
  • What has caused you to be anxious or nervous?  What questions are most pressing for you?
  • What do you anticipate as some challenges or obstacles?
  • What do you need, most immediately?
  • What’s your story and how will you integrate your story into the narrative of your work at De Smet Jesuit High School?  What’s your why?

Often times, I begin colleague meetings by asking, “What’s on your plate today?”  This question is the invitation for participants to pause, reflect, voice priorities and events we are leaving behind . . . to be wholistically present with one another.  Participants’ responses give me insight into what’s going on in their personal and professional lives – insight I may use in future conversations or encounters.  And these insights allow me to develop empathy with the busy-ness of peoples’ lives – again, cura personalis.

We continue storytelling by using imagination to consider the students we gratefully serve in school.  We put students at the center of our work when we consider:

  • Who is our student
  • What does he need?

The resulting student composite is our gateway for storytelling, now and throughout the year.

During the first days of school, we hopefully tell stories with students.  I begin English class by inviting students to reflect on their own lives.  We don’t jump right into content.  Instead, students share about their experiences: in their previous English classes, their favorite books, summer adventures, hobbies, fears, and goals for class.

We practice having conversations by being slow to speak, listening attentively, and seeking the truth in others’ stories.  When we build habits through storytelling and story listening early in the year, we develop empathy.  “Empathy entails personally getting to know the students and taking time to listen to their stories.  Empathy also entails constantly exerting the effort to accept the students with all their strengths and weaknesses, and recognizing the promise in each one” (Go, SJ, Atienza 59).

We recognize the promise of a new year and in each student, when we continue to set the context at the beginning of our academic year, especially with students.  We practice trauma-informed predictability and support when we set and communicate clear expectations, post our syllabi that includes curriculum content and skills, provide daily agendas for students, and create and communicate clear student learning outcomes.


At the beginning of class, we context-set by praying, breathing, or practicing centering prayer or similar meditative exercises.  These trauma-informed strategies help students.   In addition, students access knowledge from the previous class.  Students consider what they already know about content or skills.

During a unit on indigenous peoples, after reading introductory articles and listening to a podcast, students imagine they are indigenous peoples.   I ask, “Stepping into their shoes, how do you feel?”  This imaginative exercise leads students to express feelings of frustration, excitement, worry, marginalization, and confusion.  Next, I ask, “Now, as a high school junior, when have you ever felt frustrated, excited, worried, marginalized, or confused?”  Students begin to realize they have similar feelings they imagined about indigenous peoples and a spirit of empathy develops.  We know, “it is rare that a student experiences something new in studies without referring to it what he or she already knows” (Go, SJ, Atienza 62).  Taking time to set the context is essential.  And most times it starts with an invitation to use our experiences and reflection.


The Experience & Reflection Dance

After my spiritual director and I set the context at our weekly conversations during the Spiritual Exercises, he would invite me to talk about my experiences with prayer that week, by asking, “What struck you during prayer and why?”  Most times there would be a long pause – time for me to reflect and respond, referencing notes from my experiences that week.  Most times my responses would be followed by his offering his own experiences with the material and his interpretation of the biblical passages that we read over and prayed about the previous week.  We practiced the IPP experience and reflection dance by toggling back and forth between our experiences and reflections – components of the IPP – to come to clarity on response.

I recall one exchange my retreat director and I had, when he asked me, “Pete, how’s your prayer life and meditation going?”  Frustrated, I replied, “I can’t meditate every day for twenty minutes, it takes way too much time!”  Calmly, he smiled and invited me to, “Talk about the routine of your regular day.”  As I reflected on my daily routine, one item caught his attention.  He replied, “In the very early morning you walk your dog for ten minutes.  Then, very late at night after dinner, you said you also walk your dog for ten minutes.”  After listening to my routine, he challenged, “Pete, how about you mediate while you walk your dog?”  His suggestion came directly from listening to my reflections and my concrete experiences.  And it worked!  Both my retreat director and I used experience and reflection successfully, to help me grow as a retreatant.  Growth led to action.  These two IPP components – experience and reflection – are predicated upon the notion of cura personalis – a genuine care for the whole person.

“During the Spiritual Exercises, the retreatant comes to understand that his or her experiences are what give one’s spiritual life texture and meaning.  The time, place, events and people that constitute our experience generate the content of prayer because it is where God is encountered.  The retreatant comes to realize that God moves within the circumstances of one’s life” (Londsdale qtd in Gallagher, Musso).  And, literally, God was with me as I moved during my walks.

Similarly, as teachers and students building community in our schools, we understand that the content and skills of our classes are never meant to be experienced in just our classrooms.   Rather, course curriculum becomes illuminated and more relevant when we offer our own insights, perspectives, opinions, and personal experiences – when we interact with the content and practice skills.   IPP experience invites us into this task.

As Ignatian educators we use IPP experience in a wide variety of ways – with one another and with students.  This past summer, a group of 17 school colleagues attended the JSN Colloquium on Jesuit Secondary and Pre-Secondary Education (Los Angeles, CA).   We learned about and practiced Spiritual Conversations, where there was time for silence, noting, prayer, sharing, responding, and discernment.  This framework continuously invited us to reflect on our experiences.

As teachers, we understand, “Teaching is an intrinsically personal task . . . .  The person of the teacher makes all the difference.  Just as students cannot help but bring their context into the classroom, likewise teachers cannot help but bring their own worlds into the teaching-learning situation” (Go, SJ, Atienza, 71).  Often, we enter into a new piece of literature in English class by addressing reflection questions that invite us to think about our experiences.  These are effective activities that emphasize the important interplay between experience & reflection.  For example, before reading Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, I offer reflection prompts for us to consider:

  1. Identify a time in which you sinned and felt guilty.  – in private.
  2. Identify a time in which you sinner and felt guilty. – in public.
  3. Identify a time in which you were in need of forgiveness and reconciliation.  Did you have that need met?  Why or why not?
  4. Identify a time in which another person was in need of forgiveness from you.  Did you forgive?  Why or why not?
  5. Identify a time in which you were greatly misunderstood because the objective reality was misconstrued.
  6. Identify a time in your life when you felt a sense of isolation because of something you did or did not do.  What did that feel like?
  7. Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself – what does that mean to you?
  8. Identify a time in your life when you stood up for your beliefs, even though they went against those of a group.  What was that like?
  9. Identify a time in your life when you went along with the crowd, doing something you knew was wrong or not thinking through something.  What was that like?
  10. Identify a time when you were a victim or perpetrator of distain, either earned or not.

These reflective prompts prelect the material we will explore and invite us to consider our personal experiences.   Later, we return to our reflection prompt responses to discover how we are similar to and different from the characters in the novels we read:  how the content we discuss in class is made richer by our personal experiences.

Perhaps the most foundational IPP component is reflection.  Allowing time to reflect is a trauma-informed best practice.   During our work with others and students, in the spirit of continuous improvement, we ask questions that invite us into thinking about and acting in new and different ways.  During class, I provide time and prompts for students to think, write, and share.  When we write essays, I also write and share my experience of writing with students.  I invite students to reflect on my essays:  noticing important elements of writing, commenting on where I can improve, and suggesting macro and micro revisions.  Ultimately, these reflective conversations lead me to think and act in a new way:  I improve my existing essay.  Because I model this behavior of the interplay between experience and reflection, students feel efficacious when they write.

A common reflective practice with students is using student writing exemplars.  I randomly and anonymously choose and copy student essay drafts for the class to read and review together, during class.  We grade them, too.  This activity necessarily involves student experiences and reflection, to produce something new:  improved exemplars, a list of writing suggestions for the class, and (hopefully) improved essays for each person in the class.  Grading the essays in class, we visually see similarities and disparities of our expectations as graders.  Here, we use our experiences and reflection to think and act in new and different ways.


What’s Next?  An Invitation to Think and Act in New & Different Ways

“The Spiritual Exercises brings one to experience profoundly the steadfast love of God residing at the center of all reality and in the center one’s life.  In grateful response the retreatant experiences a deepening desire to help souls as ‘Love ought to manifest itself more in deeds than by words’(Exx230).  The retreatant has an understanding of self that includes the other . . . .  Just as faith is never merely private, Jesuit education is never meant to end in mere personal satisfaction for academic achievement.  It is presumed that the dynamic that has occurred in the education process has propelled intellectual growth and has brought insight and personal appropriation of the meaning and value of what has been learned.  But still, this is not the end of the process.  The goal of Jesuit education is to move the student to act” (Gallagher, Musso 6).

IPP action challenges students and teachers to apply our learning, all the time.  In trauma-informed schools, when people are invited to act and given choices to make decisions about how to act, it is empowering.  It is for this IPP action component, that we purposefully design activities intentionally with “action plans”.  For example, toward the end of a paid Summer Seminar for teachers, we spend time with an action plan template that includes writing a commitment: “Finally, reviewing your Collaborative Group Project, the Loving theme, your individual curriculum, along with your Thought Partners, commit to do three things within the next few months.”  After each PD day this year, we have PD Practices, inviting teachers to action, as they practically apply new knowledge in their classrooms with students.  At the conclusion of our JSN Ignatian Global Engagement Mentors training this past summer (Washington, DC), we develop individual action plans for the next few months.  After we finish books in English class, we consider how we think or act in new and different ways.  IPP action that gives participants voice and choice is trauma-informed and invites us not only to think more deeply about the results of our work, but also to inform what we do next.  By deliberately embedding action into design, we “coach for action, offering students (and colleagues) opportunities to apply what they have learned . . . (Go, SJ, Atienza, 99).


Evaluation:  Past, Present, Future

What have we done?  What are we doing?  What will we do? “Ignatian pedagogy aims at formation, which includes but goes beyond academic mastery.  Here we are concerned about students’ well-rounded growth as persons for others.  Traditional ongoing academic evaluation can alert faculty to possible needs for use of alternative methods of teaching; it also offers special opportunities to individualize encouragement and advice for academic improvement for each student.  On the other hand, periodic evaluation of the student’s growth in attitudes, priorities, and actions consistent with being a person for others is essential.  Faculty should foster relationships of mutual trust and respect which set a climate for discussion and growth. Useful evaluative processes include mentoring and reviews of student journals, as well as student self-evaluation in light of personal growth profiles . . .” (Korth).

Schools use evaluation and collect assessment data to inform how we proceed.  Formative and summative assessment practices in classes invite us to gauge student growth and revise classroom instructional strategies, to help students.   We devote time during PD days to reflect on our evaluation and assessment practices and learn about how we can target our assessment to student learning outcomes.  Teachers access and use a variety of student evaluation data from outside the immediate classroom, such as:

  • Knowing our current students’ last grades in previous classes,
  • Inviting students to goal-set during our classes,
  • Reviewing student Learning Plans (of students who have diagnosed learning disabilities) from our Learning Center,
  • Using past performance data to make decisions about student learning,
  • Using department time to analyze data and make decisions about class variables such as grouping, student seating, etc.

We require that students take end of course perception surveys, and we facilitate students ongoing use of self-assessment to help inform their personal growth, through:

  • Sophomore Conversations,
  • The Profile of the Graduate at Graduation Student Portfolio, and
  • Senior Insignis Capstone projects.

Evaluation, through assessment, is a reflective habit toward individual student growth, teacher growth, and school growth.

It’s great to be back in school, where despite the trauma we experience, there is hope among students and in the community.  And, frameworks such as the IPP invite us to build relationships that are necessary for continuous quality improvement that leads us to meaningful action and evaluation.


Works Cited

Cura Personaliswww.IgnatianSpirituality.com

Eidum, Jennifer. Embracing Disruption: A Framework for Trauma-informed Reflective Pedagogy 16 February 2022

Field, Miranda.  Empowering Students in the Trauma-Informed Classroom Through Expressive Arts Therapy.  University of Regina

Fleming, SJ, David.  The First Principal and Foundation.

Gallagher, Marianne and Pete Musso.  Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm.  JSEA:  Washington, DC, 2006.

Go, Johnny C, SJ and Rita J. Atienza.  Learning by Refractions:  A Practitioners Guide to 21st Century Ignatian Pedagogy.  Ateneo De Manila University Press:  Manila, 2019.

Ignatian Conversations.  De Smet Jesuit High School.  2019.

Ignatian Imagination:  Contemplative Prayerwww.IgnatianSpirituality.com

Ignatian Pedagogy:  A Practical Approach.  Korth, Sharon.  Xavier University.

An Inside Look at Trauma-Informed Practices | Edutopia

Positive Intentwww.IgnatianSpirituality.com

Principles for Trauma Informed Teaching and Learning

Setting Priorities in Trauma-Informed Education | Edutopia

Spiritual Conversations.  JSN Colloquium, Los Angeles, CA.  June 2022.