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School Climate & Safety Opinion

The Pandemic Is Causing Widespread Emotional Trauma. Schools Must Be Ready to Help

By Kathleen Minke — May 06, 2020 5 min read
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While every crisis is different, there is a common reality that shapes recovery: Crises always reveal both strengths and vulnerabilities in individuals and systems. How quickly we respond to bolster those strengths and mitigate those vulnerabilities is critical. As school and district leaders coordinate that response amid academic, physical, and financial concerns, they cannot ignore the emotional needs of the students and adults in their school communities.

We are already seeing how these factors play out as school districts scramble to reconfigure the multidimensional and relationship-driven work of schooling into a virtual world. Urgency is colliding with practicality. Creative problem-solving is bumping up against legal and ethical concerns. And in some cases, need is overwhelming capacity, resources, and professional experience.

School psychologists are serving on the front line of these realities, working with their educator colleagues to figure out how to support learning and meet students’ mental-health needs in a virtual context.

As schools first closed around the country, school psychologists’ immediate concerns were often procedural. How will we update eligibility and individualized education programs for students with disabilities? How will we complete assessments and stick to mandated timelines? However, these concerns were soon eclipsed by the enormity of the challenges families are facing—and the tremendous inequities that affect the ability of both families and schools to support children.

There is little doubt that there will be substantial increases in mental- and behavioral-health problems for students and adults when schools reopen their physical buildings."

Many school psychologists have now turned their attention to figuring out what services they can provide ethically and effectively using technology. They have provided virtual telehealth counseling, helped teachers adapt behavior-management strategies to a Zoom classroom, and created social-emotional-learning lessons for the home context.

Reaching the students and families at serious risk for harmful behaviors is one of the most urgent concerns facing school psychologists right now. How do we protect students who experience domestic violence and abuse, given the increasing stress on families? How do we support students with existing or emerging mental-health problems? School psychologists are figuring out how to conduct effective suicide-risk threat assessments when students threaten harm to self or others, and how to access supports and treatment for these youths.

There is little doubt that there will be substantial increases in mental- and behavioral-health problems for students and adults when schools reopen their physical buildings. Everyone has been affected by this pandemic, and we all remain at risk from the virus and resulting economic strains. But while every school has been touched by this pandemic, the effects will not be equally distributed. Schools already stressed by limited resources, high poverty rates, or other recent crises likely will experience the greatest difficulty.

So, what should schools be doing to get ready for when that moment comes? Although the current situation is unprecedented in our lifetimes, there are well-established crisis-response protocols to guide the way. For example, the National Association of School Psychologists publishes the PREPaRE curriculum that outlines the comprehensive steps schools should take from prevention through recovery.

Each school is now living its emergency operation plan and likely discovering its limitations. School leaders must address the academic, physical, fiscal, and psychological and emotional aspects of reopening their buildings.

Here are just a few of the many decisions that school and district leaders will need to make: What schedules and space arrangements will work to accommodate increased needs for sanitation and social distancing? How will missed instruction be managed, especially for students with disabilities who may require compensatory instruction? How will needed supports be funded in light of shrinking budgets?

School psychologists know that academic efforts cannot proceed without addressing psychological and emotional trauma. Learning will not occur unless the emotional needs of both students and adults are addressed. Indeed, pretending that everything is “normal” will likely exacerbate underlying traumas and further delay genuine recovery. District leaders should be taking the following steps:

1. Develop a long-term recovery plan. Do not rely on individual building principals or school psychologists to create and implement support plans. District leadership is needed to ensure that a multitiered system of support addressing both academic skills and emotional and behavioral health is available to all students and adults in each building.

2. Assess, don’t assume. All schools will face challenges, but they won’t be the same challenges. Structured needs assessments that identify the specific difficulties that students and staff face will guide intervention. Prepare comprehensive universal supports and methods to identify those who require more intensive interventions. The assessment process should be ongoing, recognizing that some students (and adults) will seem fine upon return to school only to demonstrate setbacks a few months into recovery.

3. Develop a resource map. Identify qualified mental- and behavioral-health service providers in each school and make sure their jobs are structured such that they have time to devote to such services. School psychologists, school counselors, and school social workers should be on the front lines of this work. Identify gaps in needed services and seek community supports to fill those gaps. Recognize that community service providers will be experiencing increased demand and may not be as available as they were before the pandemic. Also, many families may have lost health insurance and will find it difficult to bear the cost of treatment outside of school.

4. Provide professional development and emotional care for adults. Educators will be facing enormous responsibility to recognize signs of anxiety, depression, and trauma in their students. They also will be managing ongoing challenges in their own families. Districts should provide professional development that teaches trauma-informed practices and a robust protocol for identifying and supporting students in need. Consider how to build flexibility and support into the workday so that educators can engage in effective self-care.

In whatever fashion it takes, re-entry to school and recovery from the crisis will be a long process. Preparing now is critical. Embrace an experimental mindset that encourages trying new activities and evaluating the results. Leaders, ask your school psychologists to help. They will.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2020 edition of Education Week as The Sleeping Giant: Emotional Trauma


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