Teaching Profession

How Caring for Students in Distress Can Take a Steep Toll

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 17, 2019 9 min read
Veronica Lyon, a math teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Clarkston, Wash., comforts one of her 7th graders after a lesson in fractions. Lyon interweaves social-emotional lessons and mathematics to support distressed students.
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Math teacher Veronica Lyon is one of the people who makes support for traumatized students work at Lincoln Middle School in Clarkston, Wash., a rural community on the Idaho border.

She was an advocate for distressed students in the early days of the school’s six-year trauma-sensitive schooling initiative, and has developed a course that pairs math instruction and social skills development. Her former students often drop in to tell her how much their time with her has helped them academically and emotionally in high school.

But every year, there comes a point when she “hits [her] max,” and her work triggers social anxiety.

“I get burnt out pretty easily because, you know, the more you’re around people, the more they tap you out,” Lyon said. When it happens, “I wake up in the morning and I feel a sense of dread, like waking from a nightmare, but I didn’t have a nightmare. And I’m like, oh no, here it comes.”

Teachers can make or break efforts to create trauma-sensitive schools. Yet in the rising number of schools adopting these initiatives, both administrators and educators often underestimate the support teachers themselves need to cope with the emotional weight of helping students in distress.

“Teachers are so good at caring about others, who is thought of last? Themselves,” said Mona Johnson, the director of student support for Washington’s state education agency, who helps train district staff implementing trauma-sensitive education.

“Our first thought is to focus on what do the kids need—and that is critically important—but often we don’t even think about what we need to do to support the teachers” in how to set personal boundaries and monitor their own stress levels, Johnson said.

Just like paramedics or therapists, teachers are often the first responders for children coping with horrible experiences, including poverty, homelessness, abuse, or the death of a parent. An Education Week Research Center survey this summer found 43 percent of teachers polled said they had difficulty “finding ways to help students who appear to be struggling with problems outside of school,” and nearly 1 in 4 teachers considered “finding ways to help students who appear to be experiencing emotional or psychological distress” the most challenging task in their work.

Recognizing Signs of Teacher Burnout

The Professional Quality of Life Scale, by researcher Beth Hudnall Stamm, is a common tool to gauge burnout and compassion fatigue among teachers. It asks educators and other people in “helping” jobs to reflect on how frequently they experienced the different reactions in the last 30 days (on a scale of 1 to 5, meaning “never” to “very often”) and includes several questions related to the ways in which working with students who have experienced trauma can affect teachers. The test asks teachers to consider, among other items, whether:

  • I am preoccupied with more than one person I teach.
  • I jump or am startled by unexpected sounds.
  • I find it difficult to separate my personal life from my life as a teacher.
  • I am not as productive at work because I am losing sleep over the traumatic experiences of a person I teach.
  • I feel depressed because of the traumatic experiences of the people I teach.
  • I feel as though I am experiencing the trauma of someone I have taught.
  • I feel worn out because of my work as a teacher.
  • I avoid certain activities or situations because they remind me of frightening experiences of the people I taught.
  • I can’t recall important parts of my work with trauma victims.

For the full test and scoring, see https://proqol.org/ProQol_Test.html.

“You have to be prepared for what you are going to hear from these students,” said Allison Culver, a special education teacher at Bethlehem Elementary School in New Hampshire, who works with students with a history of trauma. “You need to be able to hear something awful and not react in a way that further traumatizes the student.”

And the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress on a student can show up in ways that add a lot more to their teacher’s plate.

“The behaviors we see in students escalate, whether it’s just apathy ... or the outward behaviors of talking back or the constant barrage of not doing what they’re supposed to do and being disrespectful. That’s very frustrating for a teacher,” said Heather Lang, who has led student support services in the Clarkston district since it launched districtwide trauma-sensitive schooling in 2013. “And when it’s daily and you have a class [of] anywhere from 24 to 35 kids, ... it’s extremely taxing. We were seeing that stress on our teachers.”

In the mental health world, this is called “compassion fatigue"—and Johnson noted that anyone working with children is at a higher than average risk for it. Strong empathy for others, less sense of one’s own feelings and needs, or personal trauma can all leave a teacher more vulnerable to this “weariness that comes with caring.” Among educators, those who are new or who work with many high-need students are especially susceptible.

Teachers who are developing secondary stress may feel mentally or physically exhausted, ill, impatient, irritable, or even burnt out and apathetic.

“A lot of that you can see in body language, you can see if they get emotional, angry, if they’re starting to send students out [to the principal’s office] a little more often than they normally would,” said Lang, who became an assistant principal at Clarkston High School this year. “Those are signs that the teachers are getting a little stressed and need a breather and need some support.”

If teachers don’t get that support, this can create a vicious cycle. Studies find stress and burnout among teachers linked to physical markers of stress in students, which in turn, make them more likely to act out.

A 2016 study of 400 elementary schools found teachers who reported higher levels of burnout had students with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol each morning, suggesting classroom tensions could be “contagious.” A separate study found that the more emotionally drained teachers became during a school year, the more disruptive their students grew.

At Lee Hill Elementary in Spotsylvania, Va., staff members say they are helping each other “put on their oxygen masks.”

The Title I school has students with a history of trauma “in every class,” said Aimee Cox-Gibbs, a social worker on Lee Hill’s trauma planning team. “Teachers are definitely on the front lines. ... Teaching when you have so many complex needs in your classroom is definitely a struggle every day.”

The school started training educators to implement trauma-sensitive schooling two years ago, and it made a point to pair new policies to support students with those to support their teachers.

Teachers dedicate 30 minutes a day to building relationships with students through social-emotional activities, but part of each month’s staff meeting is for lessons in self-care and wellness for educators. Teachers teamed up for after-school yoga last year, echoing the poses and breathing exercises taught to students during the school day.

The school expanded from one counselor to two and added a full-time social worker to support students with trauma-related needs. But Cox-Gibbs said teachers also get classroom management coaching to help divert students who are melting down without having to send them out of the room.

And just as every classroom has a quiet corner for students to retreat for a few minutes to avoid a meltdown, teachers have their own version of a time out. Those feeling particularly stressed can tag out to another staff member or administrator.

“We will go in and we’ll stay with the class for five or 10 minutes, so that the teacher can just take a step out and, you know, calm down,” Cox-Gibbs said.

Likewise, Washington’s Clarkston district realized a few years after it launched trauma-sensitive schooling that it needed more teacher-focused training and support. It added professional development on trauma-sensitive classroom-management strategies, and introduced monthly “wellness activities” like yoga, socials, and workshops from mental-health professionals who talk about ways for teachers to monitor and relieve their own stress. The district pays for counseling for staff members who need it.

Sometimes rethinking the structure of classes can help, too. Lyon pointed to the class she developed, which involves teaching both social-emotional skills and math. But its original structure wore her down.

“These are kids that have been identified that their social-emotional issues have really impacted—strongly impacted—their ability to learn. We need to address those issues before we try to get into crazy amounts of math,” Lyon said. “I was trying to do [social-emotional learning] one day, math the next day, and I found that it really just wasn’t a good practice for my mental health. You’ll have all this great momentum on an SEL [skill] and they’re like, oh, just kidding. ... Regaining that momentum on the next day we did [social-emotional learning] was like pulling teeth. ... That just became daunting.”

Now Lyon teaches social skills for the first half of each class and math for the second, and makes sure her students know what to expect every day. And she said the skills that she teaches students to feel calm and focus have helped her as well.

For example, she noticed her 7th graders often entered the classroom rowdy or angry, and began to do a guided meditation at the start of class to help them be “present, aware, and nonjudgmental” and to think through the work they would be doing. She found fewer disruptions and outbursts, but also noted that she practiced mindfulness as she taught. “It turns out it helped me a lot. So practicing mindfulness has been just as beneficial in my life as a teacher, as it has been for any student that I have,” she said.

Difficult Histories

It’s important for administrators to understand that helping students can trigger some teachers to recall traumatic events in their own lives.

Lisa Dolan, who leads Spotsylvania’s districtwide trauma-sensitive schooling initiative, recalled that during professional development in one school, she realized that 75 percent of the students had experienced at least four traumatic events, such as domestic abuse or living with an adult abusing drugs—and 25 percent of the teachers had experienced the same.

“Of course they were stressed,” she said.

“It creates special circumstances to try to do trauma-informed care. We had been planning to move forward with training, but had to halt that because it could retraumatize [the teachers],” Dolan said. “We had to take a step back and do more self-care and morale-boosting for teachers.”

In Lincoln Middle School, Principal Michael Sperry does regular emotional “temperature checks” with his staff. If someone is “getting in a bad way,” he might take their class for a few hours or arrange a substitute for a few days. Sperry recalled that his own superintendent noticed when he was beginning to show signs of emotional exhaustion and helped him get support to recharge.

He also regularly gathers teachers to go over the progress students are making and sends teachers to present at conferences, to give them time to focus on the benefits and growth they are seeing.

About This Series

This installment is the third and final in a series of articles exploring how schools are learning to recognize and respond to students experiencing traumatic stress, whether it stems from a sudden disaster or a long-term hardship like poverty or abuse. Read more.

“You have to be extremely patient with both teachers and yourself,” Sperry said.

Lyon said Sperry usually notices when she is feeling stressed and helps her get space to regroup. She and other teachers who work with students with a history of trauma meet to help each other plan instructional strategies and work through stressful decisions, such as when and how to report to child welfare when they suspect a student is being abused.

And teachers and principals alike agreed that one of the best ways to fight compassion fatigue is to focus on how far their students have come.

“The communication that ‘You are important to me, I’m investing in educating you as an entire person, and I love you regardless of your mathematical abilities’ has allowed students to take more risks,” trying more challenging problems and completing more assignments, Lyon said.

Support from school leaders can make a real difference in how well teachers counter compassion fatigue.

In an evaluation of trauma-sensitive initiatives in schools, Washington State University researcher Christopher Blodgett found that schools where principals did not build a foundation of supports and care for teachers were unable to sustain trauma-informed care for students over time.

“It’s shifting the paradigm to understand that it’s not taking away anything from the kids,” Johnson said. “If we invest some time and energy in helping educators focus on their own self-care and wellness, then they can be even more skilled and more energized and have more tools to help the kids.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2019 edition of Education Week as How Caring for Students Can Take a Steep Toll


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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