Professional Development

Managing Student Trauma: 10 Ways for Teachers to Take the Lead

These are the roles that equip them perfectly for the challenging exploits of managing student trauma.

The profession of teaching has come a long way over the centuries. Educators have done more than just shifting from being keepers of knowledge to facilitators of learning. In addition to all this, they've become our students' collaborative partners, caregivers, confidants, and counselors. As it turns out, these are the roles that equip them perfectly for the challenging exploits of managing student trauma.

Difficult as it is to remember sometimes, our learners have more than classroom assignments on their minds.

Every day outside of school they are growing and discovering things about living life in a rapidly-changing world. Sometimes, though, those things can be uncomfortable at best, and deeply injurious at worst. Moreover, the reality is that this will always find a way to manifest in a student's behaviour, and in a myriad of ways that depend on the individual themselves.

But is this a common thing in schools? How often are teachers placed in this position? Some unsettling statistics from this Edutopia article by Emelina Minero can't be ignored. These are stats found within the United States alone:

"Data shows that more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma in the form of abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances—and 35 percent of children have experienced more than one type of traumatic event, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have impacts that extend far beyond childhood, including higher risks for alcoholism, liver disease, suicide, and other health problems later in life."

The same article recounts the experience of teacher Alysia Ferguson Garcia in facing the emotional suffering of her own kids. By her own admission it was something she wasn't prepared for:

“When you’re learning to be a teacher, you think it’s just about lesson plans, curriculum, and seating charts ... I was blindsided by the emotional aspect of teaching—I didn’t know how to handle it. I was hurt by my students’ pain, and it was hard for me to leave that behind when I went home.”

She's right—it's hard for someone as compassionate as a teacher to forget about this sort of thing after having witnessed it. After all, our learners are in our care for much of the year and more than the academic end up becoming shared experience.

Outside the school walls, things occur in learners' lives that educators aren't privy to. These include family tragedy, personal loss, disease and injury, and physical and emotional violence. All of these are realities that play no favourites with either age or gender. Just as easily as they can happen to us, they also can—and often do—happen to our students.

10 Coping Strategies for Managing Student Trauma

A wealth of information exists on this crucial topic and we urge you to explore it as much as possible—your learners can benefit greatly from your knowledge. The following ideas for helping you with managing student trauma come from those who have placed their experience and wisdom on the Web for others to take from. You can read more about their insights at the links provided.

Be Open and Available

"Teachers wear multiple hats: they must teach, nurture, and support. They are in a wonderful position to educate about facts and feelings. Teachers should let students know there are no right or wrong ways to feel, and that feelings change over time. They should present issues in a dispassionate way; accept all opinions; correct misinformation; and be mindful to teach and model tolerance."

Dr. Robin F. Goodman, 10 Tips for Talking With Students About Tragedy)

Give Them Choices

"People with trauma history experience a lack of control. Provide safe ways for students to exercise choice and control within an activity and within the environment (choice of seats, choice of book, etc)."

(Alex Shevrin, 8 Ways to Support Students Who Experience Trauma)

Recognize and Respond

"When you notice that a child might be having a difficult time, start by asking yourself, 'What’s happening here?' rather than 'What’s wrong with this child?' This simple mental switch can help you realize that the student has been triggered into a fear response, which can take many forms."

(Joyce Dorado & Vicki Zakrzewski, How to Help a Traumatized Child in the Classroom)

Prioritize Relationships

"Because these children may not have experienced many other positive relationships with adults, the student-teacher bond can be the most important gift educators have to offer. Teachers who are reliable, honest, and dependable can offer the stability these students so desperately need."

(Jessica Lahey, How Teachers Help Students Who've Survived Trauma)

Keep Yourself Strong

"Your children take cues from your words and actions, and you will need to take care of your own needs in order to stay calm and strong for your children. Seek out community resources to find the support you need."

(Thirteen Online Education: Dealing With Tragedy)

Provide Safe Places

"In a corner of Alexandra Kay’s kindergarten classroom at the Barrett Russell School in Brockton, there’s a small tent where agitated students can curl up on a dimly lit pillow for a few minutes of quiet, and also a sand table, where they can run their fingers through the cool grains. 'A sensory break,' Kay calls it. For her kindergarteners who need a more active break from their desks, Kay also has a small trampoline."

(Mary Ellen Flannery, How Schools Are Helping Traumatized Students Learn Again)

Use Counselling

"My son’s academic advisor was extremely empathetic and helpful ... he made himself readily available, helped my son to communicate with professors about the issues he was facing, and advised my son to consider lightening his course load for the fall semester, which turned out to be the right choice for him."

(Karen Walker, Suicide: Helping Your Teen Cope With Tragedy)

Let Them Speak

"The goal is not to take away the pain of grief, but to allow an opportunity for children to express it ... with grieving children, it's important to listen more and talk less. Give them space to express themselves rather than 'turning the tables' by bringing up your own painful losses. You can also reassure students—young children, in particular—that they are not responsible for the death. Even when there is no reason to suspect they feel guilty, feelings of guilt are nearly universal in grieving children."

(Christine Park, 5 Tips for Supporting Grieving Students)

Know the Symptoms

"Be understanding and tolerant of common grief reactions which include: decreased appetite, difficulty sleeping, a decreased ability to concentrate, increased sadness, and social withdrawal. (In younger children) possible reactions include: crying or screaming, clinging to caregivers or other trusted adults, fear of separation, regressive behaviours, or decreased verbalization." 

(National Association of School Psychologists, Addressing Grief: Tips for Teachers and Administrators)

Be Honest

"Don’t distort the truth or lie to kids about tragedy. Children will often see through lies and will feel more alone and confused with their feelings because they know you don’t want to talk with them about the truth. Knowing the truth will help kids begin to heal because they have a complete understanding of events."

(Kit Richert, Ph.D., How to Help Your Students Deal with Grief and Loss)

The fallout from emotionally jarring life events ending up in the classroom is a sobering possibility for any teacher. Unfortunately, it's not just a matter of "leaving it at the door." If it were that easy to switch off, having the human experience would be far less rewarding when tragedy is overcome. Thus, teachers need to be prepared to do what is right and necessary in managing student trauma, to help kids heal.

Managing Student Trauma: Further Reading