Student Well-Being What the Research Says

How Teachers Can Support Traumatized Students (and Why They Should)

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 18, 2022 5 min read
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Trauma can come in response to a single, intense event like a natural disaster or repeated toxic stressors such as abuse or homelessness. Whether a child develops problems with thinking, self-control, and interpersonal relations as a result of trauma depends on more than just the traumatic event or events. It’s also driven by whether the child has healthy, supportive relationships that can help them regain a sense of safety.

“Because the pandemic has gone on so long, we’re really functioning in a space where all the adults in the system, as well as all the kids need help to figure out how to move forward,” said Micere Keels, an associate professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago.

In that respect, the pandemic has created something of a perfect storm, with children experiencing illness or death in their families, financial and housing instability, and adult stress that has put children at higher risk of abuse or neglect. And for months at a time, many students experienced school closures or remote instruction that provided less connection to typical school support networks.

Keels and other experts discussed ways schools can support students who have experienced trauma on Wednesday, as part of the “Examining the Evidence” series, a partnership between Education Week and the Annenberg Institute’s ED Research for Recovery project.

Experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Surgeon General, have warned that the pandemic has sparked a national emergency in child mental health problems, including rising rates of self-harm among children and adolescents.

If teachers react to a student’s behavior by itself, the response can be more intense and punitive—particularly if the teacher also is coping with trauma or stress.

“The problem with trauma is we can’t always see it. It’s not like a broken leg where ... they’re wearing a cast and you can act accordingly, knowing they are not yet healed,” Keels said.

When it comes to psychological and emotional trauma, she added, “most of us walk around trying to be as if everything is OK, and so you don’t realize which students are coping with what negative, traumatic and distressing experiences.”

Gigi Dibello, the coordinator of Project AWARE, a trauma-informed instruction program at the Woonsocket education department in Rhode Island, said it’s not enough for teachers and school support staff to try to identify trauma based on symptoms or behavior. Woonsocket schools survey all students to identify which students have or are coping with traumas like the death of a family member or housing instability.

Keels said school leaders and educators should focus on ensuring students feel physically, psychologically, and emotionally safe at school, while also helping them become mindful of their own emotions.

If, for example, a student lashes out or behaves out of character in response to a teacher or peer, Keels said a teacher can help de-escalate the situation by acknowledging a student’s distress and asking them to take a few focused breaths.

“You can just give [distressed students] a little nudge, say, I see you, and I can get to you after if you can just make it through this class period,” Keels said.
“Quick little statements like that, if the teacher has a relationship with the student, that helps the student engage their self-control in the moment, knowing you are going to come back to them after.”

Monique Smith, the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Chicago public schools, said schools should shift their mindset from the “what” to the “why” when explaining rules and processes to both teachers and students. She said helping people feel more ownership and agency related to both what they are learning in school and behavioral rules can help them feel more secure and engaged during periods of instability.

“We want students to believe that what they are doing is purposeful. No one wants to just perform a task out of compliance, and students are no different,” Smith said. “We have to give them that space.”

Ongoing adult training needed

Ongoing training and support for teachers and other adults in a district is critical, Smith said, because staff stress and turnover has also increased during the pandemic. For example, the district now trains all staff to support executive function and mindfulness in students.

Just before the pandemic began in 2020, Woonsocket public schools implemented Project AWARE, a school-based mental health structure to train teachers in strategies to build supportive relationships with students and use “conscious discipline” rather than simply reacting to students in the moment. The project also provides peer support and problem-solving networks to help teachers to manage their classes and their own stress.

Gigi Dibello, the coordinator for Project AWARE, said the program proved crucial when the district coped with pandemic disruptions and student disengagement and depression. The district trained all of its elementary teachers and half of the secondary teachers in trauma-informed practices, including suicide prevention and first aid for mental health crises.

The district also created a professional learning community for teachers around trauma-informed instruction and trained paraprofessionals, office secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, and other support staff to identify and support students dealing with toxic stress.
Among the educators’ recommendations:

  • School and district leaders should use policies and practices that are responsive to the kind of developmental challenges trauma can create.
  • In schools that have experienced sudden, large increases in the number of students experiencing trauma, teachers may need to adapt moderately intensive “tier 2" interventions, normally used for small groups of students, to entire classes.. For example, they could use reflective essay writing to encourage students to process stressful experiences.
  • Social workers and counselors can block out certain times of the day to bolster teachers’ capacity to promote positive mental health in classrooms and support children’s self-regulation skills.
  • School security staff should learn trauma-informed de-escalation strategies.

“If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it’s given all of us a shared experience of trauma,” DiBello said, adding, “it’s also created a shared urgency around mental and behavioral health that is unprecedented and indisputable.”

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