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How to Help Your Students Cope With Trauma

The effects of trauma are difficult for anyone to overcome. For children, however, the consequences are often greater. With many students experiencing ongoing daily trauma, or chronic trauma, teachers are challenged to find the best ways to help them feel safe and secure where social, mental and physical development matters most.

What can you do to ensure your students can learn, no matter what they are experiencing outside of the classroom? Whether students are dealing with abuse, stress from the pandemic, or issues they hear about in the news cycle, these tips may help educators take a thoughtful approach to helping their young charges.

Why Should You Care About Trauma?

Children are not always open about what they experience at home. While teachers have an obligation to report apparent cases of abuse or neglect, not all trauma is the result of a reportable offence or criminal behavior. Trauma, whether caused by the recent loss of a loved one or continual exposure to violence in the community can affect a child’s ability to mature and learn new skills.

Children react to trauma in different ways, but withdrawal, negative thinking, poor self-regulation and hyper-vigilance are common. These defense-mechanisms make it difficult for the victims to learn and thrive and may even affect the learning of other children in the classroom who are not directly involved.

Practice Positivity

Trauma can show up in many ways in a child’s daily behaviors, actions, thoughts and relationships, leading some children to disrupt the classroom with their acting out. Teachers should assume that any child could be dealing with trauma and provide an open and positive environment. Reinforcing good behavior will counter some of the negative attention-seeking behaviors, while immediate rewards and random acts of kindness demonstrate positive attention even when students haven’t “earned it.”

Prevent Escalation

Children with chronic trauma often find it hard to calm down on their own, and small ways of acting out can quickly escalate into much more disruptive behavior. By learning about “preventative de-escalation,” teachers may be able to spot early signs of agitation before it spirals into something more challenging to handle. Both identifying an escalation before it starts and using feedback to help a student self-identify it for next time will go a long way to help break the acting out cycle at a much earlier phase.

Practice the Big and Small Things

Another characteristic of chronic trauma is the inability to tolerate unpredictability. Even with activities that many children find routine, victims of trauma may not be able to reasonably anticipate what comes next. This gap in prediction can cause stress in the classroom, and teachers play an essential role in helping traumatized students plan out, visualize and practice the order of events for any new or difficult task.

“Dry runs” for tasks like taking a spelling quiz, visiting a new part of the school building, or interacting with classmates can help ease tension and prevent emotional overload. Narrate each step of the activity as you go, as this will help reinforce how normal and predictable even these unknown activities can become.

How to Prepare for a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom

Because teachers interact with children so many hours every day, they have opportunities to show empathy in ways that many other school and community leaders do not. However, they can only do so much without up-to-date methodology and training in best practices. By earning a Master of Science in Educational Leadership online from St. Thomas University, you take that first big step to understanding the many challenges students face and how you can best support their growth.

Learn more about STU’s Master of Science in Educational Leadership online program.


Child Mind Institute: How Trauma Affects Kids in School

Edutopia: Supporting Students with Chronic Trauma

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