The virus outbreak has resulted in an increase of students who are now experiencing trauma. As a result of general disruptions to normalcy, changes in their daily schedules, or even unsafe home situations, many students are operating in a “fight or flight” mode and shifting their focus from thriving to simply getting through the day.
In light of this, it’s vital that educators approach students and remote learning through a trauma-informed lens. What practices can you implement to support a safe and stable learning environment for vulnerable students?
In this post, we list five suggestions on how to serve and support your students who might be impacted by trauma—whether that trauma was pre-existing or caused by the pandemic.
1. Develop a routine and stick to it
Students who are dealing with trauma need a regular rhythm and schedule to get a sense of psychological safety. Whether it’s knowing exactly when a class will be, or what teachers they’ll be connecting with, students will benefit from order and routine. Throughout the day, consider setting aside dedicated periods for group debriefs or office hours for additional morale or instructional support.
Also, be sure to set clear expectations and be consistent with how you handle behavior in the remote classroom. This is key to stabilizing the environment for everyone. As stated by Anastasia Resner, a case manager, and De’Amonta Casey, a school psychologist: “Create a sense of consistency and have clear expectations and predictable consequences. It’s crucial to show consistent and controlled reactions and give students choice rather than ultimatums.”
2. Prioritize relationships over assignments and performance
According to researchers at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, educators should not be placing too much emphasis on homework and completing assignments during this time: “Remember that students may be dealing with many different home life situations while trying to maintain their academics, and there are myriad reasons they may be embarrassed to share about why they can’t complete assignments.” A singular focus on compliance can further alienate and isolate vulnerable students.
Instead, use this unique time and environment to focus on connecting with individual students. Schedule short one-on-one meetings to check in with students. Ask open-ended questions like “How are you feeling day-to-day?” that could lead to deeper conversations over time. As developing meaningful relationships may be a difficult task for students with trauma, leaders and teachers who go the extra mile to show care and concern could make a big difference for students who need it most.
3. Create a safe and calming environment for everyone
It’s crucial to build an environment in which students can feel at peace. Not to say that teachers need to exude a false sense of tranquility—students are good at detecting insincerity—but rather they should model an attitude of transparency and empathy. In her EdWeek opinion editorial, Brittany Collins suggests establishing yourself as “a safe person to whom they can turn for support […] by directly acknowledging the circumstances we are in and being honest about how this situation impacts you.”
Build a space in which everyone feels included and opinions are heard and valued. Students should feel comfortable sharing openly and honestly without judgment. You can set the example by maintaining awareness of your own well-being and being earnest about your own challenges. In practical terms, this could also mean starting off sessions with a short meditation or deep-breathing exercises. Every little step towards mindfulness can help set the tone and reduce stress for students.
4. Promote healthy and positive habits
One way to encourage a positive mindset is to promote practices that deal with self-worth and affirm students’ sense of safety. One method is to create surveys that track how students are doing in regards to their social-emotional health and learning environment. Questions like “On a scale of 1-10, how anxious are you feeling?” could be a direct gauge around an individual’s mental state.
Activities such as writing lists of gratitude or appreciation could also foster positivity. Ask students to name things they can be thankful for even in the midst of this situation. Encourage them to pass notes of appreciation to fellow classmates and peers. As Teaching Tolerance states, “These activities can promote self-regulation when students are feeling stressed and provide a healthy sense of control over controllable aspects of an overwhelming situation.”
5. Connect students with school mental health experts if necessary
Even with all these measures, there might still be students who don’t respond and require additional intervention. There are certain situations in which you’ll need to escalate the concern, in particular if cases involve students who are struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Here it is best to refer them and their caretakers to mental health professionals and outside agencies that can directly assist in the matter. Be sure to inform school counselors and psychologists about the situation so that they can provide wrap-around care if needed.
Every student is experiencing quarantine and dealing with the school closures in their own way. Although there’s been a big change for everyone, these experiences may indeed cause trauma for some students. Be aware of possible trauma and be sensitive to the fact that students need a safe space and environment to process their emotions. When you do your part by truly engaging and empathizing, your students will feel more empowered to rise above the challenges of this time.
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