Trauma...Are You Truly Prepared?
As attention turns to students returning to school in the fall. There are, however, conflicting views as to what is best for students and for the country. Regardless of which side is right, when students return to school teachers will have many aspects of student learning to worry about like interrupted learning or how do I catch my students up from the previous year, even how to effectively social distance to keep your students as well as yourself safe? There are so many things to worry about, especially how all of these things will affect student learning. As if there is not enough to worry about, there is another aspect that we must anticipate...additional trauma that students and teachers may bring back from the effects of the dual pandemics. Let’s focus on students this time.
Trauma is defined as a deeply disturbing experience which affects the brain’s reactivity to threats or perceived threats. The response to these threats or perceived threats activates one’s survival (fight, flight, or freeze) functions. What does this mean for learning? Students who experience traumatic events. For example, it may not be difficult for teachers to identify African American male students who have trauma from the police, watching what happened to George Floyd.
If you asked anyone what they think about 2020, you might be hard pressed to find someone that would say that it's been a “good year.” Most people will tell you “It’s been one hell of a year!” It’s no secret that we’ve all faced our fair share of hills and valleys. We’ve been trying to stay safe, keep loved ones safe, and many of us have been quarantined for an extended amount of time, which has its own set of issues. Now, as educators, we face a completely different challenge...making the adjustments for returning to school. Some places have decided to go with a more traditional brick and mortar option, while others have decided to go with a virtual option. Despite the option your school or district has chosen, there is one aspect that all educators need to be aware of and that is the onset of increased student and adult trauma.
The world is attempting to heal from the dual pandemics of systematic racism and COVID-19, and both pandemics have caused students to face deeply disturbing experiences that have been forced upon them. For students, who have been or know people who have experienced COVID or those who have lost people from COVID, they may fear sickness possibly causing them to be more withdrawn from relationships. For our students of color, particularly our African American students, they may deal with intrusive thoughts of worry concerning what may happen to their fathers, brothers, uncles, and even themselves if they were to encounter police officers. Fear seems to be more prevalent in today’s society. What about teachers? They themselves are not exempt from these feelings of powerlessness and despair. Trauma is invisible and can be multilayered.
Why is this important? Well, simply because trauma affects how students learn and how teachers teach. According to an article by Helen Collins Sitler (2008) trauma is an affliction of powerlessness that renders victims helpless. Sitler (2008) reminds us that trauma can interfere with concentration, creating passivity in students and adults. Trauma also leads to behaviors that could be most likely associated with students who are disengaged or that some might be considered “behavioral problems'' like having a lack of interest or even lashing out verbally and/or physically (2008). For teachers, this may mean having a shorter fuse and not understanding why. According to www.traumasensitiveschools.org, trauma also interferes with students’ capacity for creative play, which is one of the ways students deal with the stressors of everyday life. Thus, for teachers, building strong relationships has to be key to reach students on a deeper level. To understand students’ and our own behaviors, we must first understand what they and we have experienced, why these behaviors exist and what supports can be implemented to help.
How to Support Students Dealing with Trauma
According to psychiatry.org, adults common reactions to trauma might include:
Trouble falling asleep
Sadness and or depression
Lack of energy
Psychosomatic symptoms like headaches or stomach aches
When teachers are in this state, it is safe to say that if they are operating from these standpoints, they may have trouble meeting the many needs of their students because they don’t fully understand their own needs. For adults, it would be helpful to find support to understand the source of these behaviors and how to cope. Steps might be seeking assistance from health care providers, finding soothing and relaxing coping exercises, and learning what resources are available through your insurance provider, just to name a few (psychiatry.org).
Students may deal with some of the same symptoms, however their behavior may show up differently like an inability to manage their emotions, behaviors that seem like “acting out,” and even their own chronic physical ailments causing them to have frequent interrupted learning. In order to better help students, we must first check our own personal biases at the door. Meaning that a student who seems to be aggressive or uninvolved in your class may be experiencing interrupted thoughts dealing with their own personal trauma. If I think that the student just “doesn’t want to learn” then I have closed myself off to the possibilities that the student may be really searching for help. For students dealing with trauma, we must establish a culture of support and cooperation (2008). So how should you support them?
Basically, they need to know that their teacher and their peers are in support of them and are not judging them by providing them a space that provides attention to their physical and safety needs (2008)
Trauma is often accompanied by feeling out of control, so provide them with some autonomy of choice. If autonomy is constricted, students could be triggered into a flight, fight, or freeze response (2008).
If you suspect students may be dealing with trauma, get guidance counselors involved. Counselors need to do what they have been trained to do, which is counsel students who need the additional support helping them develop new coping skills (2008).
Remember that this is a whole school effort, so identifying and supporting students who are struggling with trauma is not a job that falls solely on one person. Ask for help, ask other teachers what they know about the student, get school leadership involved, and adjust to their ever-changing needs (traumasensitiveschools.org).
Prompt students before calling on them in class. Cold calling them can signal to them that, even in the classroom, they don’t have control, and their response to this could be anywhere between apathy or defiance.
As we all reenter schools physically or virtually, there are going to bring experiences that we bring with us that may not have been addressed...we may not even know that we have new triggers. Our students will need our empathy, NOT our sympathy. One of the biggest pieces of advice that we, here at Prospective180, can provide to you, is be patient with your students as well as yourself. You too may be taking additional trauma back into work that you may not be aware of, so make sure you have the support that you need. Below we have listed some resources for individuals who may be struggling dealing with trauma. Stay diligent, and Stay safe!
Mental Health Resources:
Goodman, R. D., Miller, M. D., & West-Olatunji, C. A. (2012). Traumatic stress,
socioeconomic status, and academic achievement among primary school
students. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 4(3),
Sitler, H. C. (2009). Teaching with Awareness: The Hidden Effects of Trauma on
Learning. Clearing House, 82(3), 119–124.
Trauma-Sensitive Schools: A Whole-School Approach. (2020, August 05). Retrieved
September 01, 2020, from http://www.traumasensitiveschools.org/