5 Strategies to Help Traumatized Students

By MB (Marybeth) Mitcham

“She’s standing too close to you. She’s standing too close to you. She needs to go now. She needs to go now.”

Fists clenched and eyes firmly fixed on the floor at his feet, my student bellowed the same phrase again. My other students stood in the hallway, frozen, unsure of how to handle the situation. Their eyes were wide open, alternating between staring at their classmate who was obviously distressed and then at me.

“It’s okay,” I calmly said. “Why don’t you all go back to the classroom, and I will follow you in a minute.”

I smiled at my students as they quickly retreated to the classroom and then turned back to my distraught student, keeping a smile on my face. Still speaking calmly, I told him that it was okay, that I was not upset with him, and that I was glad he wanted to make sure I was okay. He quickly raised his head to look at me.

“Really? You’re not mad at me?”

Still smiling, I shook my head no and repeated that I was glad he wanted to make sure that I was okay.

At this, he burst into tears and began to speak about the hard things at home—pain, hurt, and anguish pouring out of him—as he finally felt safe enough to share what he had previously been too ashamed to let anyone know.

In the many years I’ve been teaching, I’ve learned that extreme behaviour exhibited by students, whether overly helpful, disruptive, or downright combative, often is borne out of some trauma they have experienced (Schunk, 2016). Although some traumas might be easily discernable, such as students who have battled with cancer or who have lost their home in a fire, many traumas are much harder to identify. And, even if identified, they are still extremely challenging to address without inadvertently causing more pain or shame for the student.

Here are five strategies I’ve found to be helpful, both as a formerly traumatized student and as an educator, in creating a safe and supportive learning environment for all students, but especially for those who are struggling with trauma.

  1. Be consistent in your expectations. This is beneficial to all students, but even more important for students who have experienced trauma. Many traumatized students may currently live in very unstable home situations, remaining on high alert at all times. Consistent expectations will provide sorely needed stability and allow your students to lower their guards and hopefully gain some emotional respite.
  2. Value everyone equally. It is very difficult to not show favoritism toward your students. Those who are easier to work with, are more compliant, or simply tug at your heartstrings often get extra smiles, encouraging words, and praise. Although teachers often do this unconsciously, we need to be aware that it happens and actively remain consistent and comprehensive with our praise and attention.
  3. Speak the truth in love. One thing that I love most about young children is their lack of artifice. If you want to know if your outfit is ugly, just ask what they think. They’ll tell you! Traumatized students may struggle with separating reality and fantasy. They also may believe that they need to avoid speaking about certain things or hide the truth. If your classroom expectations are that everyone will speak the truth in love, then no topic is taboo. This provides a safe place for all students, including those who have been traumatized.
  4. Exhibit and promote integrity. Educators, by nature of our roles and responsibilities, are also leaders. We are watched by our students, colleagues, and community members for how we conduct ourselves. For traumatized students, who may witness situations where people in authority exhibit hypocrisy, it is imperative for them to witness integrity in a leader. When you model integrity in the classroom, you set a high standard for the rest of the class to follow, creating a safe place and helping all students, including traumatized ones, to develop their own good leadership skills.
  5. Create classroom traditions. My second-grade teacher was known for her love of butterflies. Every student entering her classroom knew that they would have monthly activities relating to butterflies and, in the spring, would raise and release butterflies. That tradition gave me something to look forward to and value, a truly priceless gift that helped me feel like I belonged. By creating classroom traditions—something completely unique to your class—you will help traumatized students feel like they belong.

By implementing these strategies in your classroom, you will provide sorely needed stability and safety that will help all your students thrive, including those suffering from trauma.

Dr. Mitcham holds graduate and doctoral degrees in public health nutrition and public health-focused curriculum and instruction. She spends most of her time working as an Extension resource educator and adjunct professor. However, she would much rather scamper up and over mountains, munch on eggplant bacon, or do zoomies with her shollie, Sig.

References

Schunk, D. (2016). Learning theories: An educational perspective. Pearson.

Back to School 2021: Grieving Students, Transitions, and COVID-19

By the Coalition to Support Grieving Students

2021 is a different kind of back-to-school year. As schools move toward full in-person learning, students and educators alike continue to adapt.

In the transition back to in-person learning, schools may need to reach out to students who have not returned to school or re-engaged in learning. They may also be making contact with families that have suffered multiple stressors and losses caused by the pandemic or exacerbated by the isolation of shutdowns.

Many students and educators are grieving what they have lost during COVID-19 closures—chances to socialize with peers, be a senior in middle school, start kindergarten, participate in sports or performing arts. Most have been affected by ongoing issues in the broader world as well—social justice, racial inequities, bitter political divides, the financial impact of the pandemic.

Students who are grieving the death of a family member or loved one are part of this mix. Even before the pandemic, student grief was surprisingly common. About 1 in 20 students will lose a parent during their school years, and virtually all students will know someone who has died by the time they complete high school. During the pandemic, students have lost loved ones to many causes, including COVID-19. Some communities have been especially hard hit by the virus. Students are also still grieving losses that occurred before the pandemic.

Students who experienced a death of someone close from a cause other than COVID-19 may feel the attention focused on tragic losses due to the pandemic means they are somehow less entitled to grieve openly and request support. This may prompt them to try to keep their feelings private. They may have had to begin to grieve the loss while separated from extended family and friends, and without the usual support of peers. This would further heighten their sense of isolation.

Times of transition and change can be particularly challenging for grieving students. Educators are positioned to offer valuable support that can make a profound difference in students’ lives academically, socially, and emotionally—often through simple gestures that help these students feel affirmed and understood. The Coalition to Support Grieving Students has a collection of free video and written materials that offer guidance designed expressly for educators, including content specific to COVID-19.

Transitions Can Be Difficult for Any Student

Transitions are times when children and youth may face a range of challenges. The following steps will support both grieving and other students.

  • Address apprehensions. Students are excited to be with peers and start a new year. They may also have lingering fears about risks of illness or death. Provide honest, realistic reassurances about measures being taken to protect students and educators.
  • Be honest. Students know things are not “normal.” It isn’t necessary to pretend that everything is okay when it clearly isn’t. Provide opportunities for students to discuss their experiences and concerns.
  • Introduce subjects sensitively. Educators cannot know every student’s experiences. When a history, literature, or other lesson addresses topics such as death, loss, trauma, severe illness, racism, or other serious matters, provide some background before the lesson. Give students the opportunity to discuss any concerns with you privately. Make accommodations for the student when indicated.
  • Offer options for activities involving family members. Many students do not have a parent to turn to for family-based classroom or homework activities. This may be due to death, illness, divorce, military deployment, incarceration, or other reasons. Be sure to offer options: “For this essay, I’d like you to write about your mother or another woman in your life who has been helpful to you.”

Reach Out to Grieving Students

All children grieve in unique ways. There are also common characteristics for most grieving students. Over the past year, these students have been especially affected by the consequences of the pandemic—isolation, academic challenges, worry about their own and others’ health, feeling overwhelmed. If you know a student is grieving the death of a family member or friend, the following steps can be especially helpful.

  • Reach out personally early in the year.Acknowledge that grief creates challenges. Let the student know you are available to talk, or listen, if any concerns arise. For specific guidance on what to say, see these Coalition materials.
  • Remember that grieving children experience secondary losses. Many things can change for a child after a death. The family may need to move in with relatives or find less expensive housing. The child may have to attend a new school. During the pandemic, with its associated financial challenges, many families have had to make exactly these kinds of changes.
  • Make adjustments in academic work. It is difficult to concentrate and learn during acute grief. Extending deadlines and offering alternative assignments can help grieving students experience academic success as they readjust to their life after a loss.
  • Support college and career aspirations. After a death, some teens hesitate to move forward with plans to go to college, join the military, or attend trade school. They may feel a need to stay close to their family or provide financial support. Concerns about COVID-19 have added further distress to these decisions. Although there may be no “correct” solution, the support of a trusted educator who can listen to a student’s concerns can be invaluable.
  • Recognize that grieving children are often more vulnerable at times of transition. This can be the start of the school year (new teachers, new classmates, new classroom). It can involve a change in schools or a change in the family—someone moving in or out. It can include the changes of puberty, the start of dating, or a breakup with a romantic partner.
  • Offer to assist in future transitions. Ask the student and parents if they would like you to notify a new school of the student’s circumstances. This can create a safer and more welcoming setting for the student.

Take Care of Yourself

Educators have also been affected by the pandemic, experiencing loss, stressors, and other hardships. Children depend on important adults to help them feel safe and secure. If an educator is anxious, sad, or angry, students are more likely to be affected by that emotional state than by the words they hear. The Coalition offers a module on steps for self-care for educators supporting grieving children.

Self-care is not an “add-on.” It is an essential step, allowing educators to offer powerful support to worried and grieving students. Educators generally experience many personal rewards when they join in this vital effort.

Mental Illness Among College Students: Would a Gap Year Help?

Today’s blogger is William Beaver (Robert Morris University–Pittsburgh), author of the article “Would a ‘Gap Year’ Reduce Mental Illness Among College Students?”, which appears in the July 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of August.

I first became interested in mental illness among college students a few years ago when a dorm counselor at the college where I taught told me that the number of students on Prozac was higher than anyone would suspect. I then thought back to my years as an undergraduate. Depression, often referred to as the common cold of mental illness, obviously existed. Yet, I don’t recall anyone talking much about it, and no one ever told me they were depressed. Most likely, that was because my peer group was mostly male, where admitting any weakness rarely occurred. I do remember one time sitting around a table in the student union when someone said that a male student, whom we all knew, had tried to commit suicide. No one at the table said anything, and the subject was quickly changed.

That said, my generation certainly had things to be stressed about. A couple of days before classes started in our freshman year, the president of the school informed us that one-third of our class would not be returning for their sophomore year because they had less than the coveted 2.0, which, as I recall, turned out to be fairly accurate. For males, there was a serious penalty for getting poor grades: Vietnam. If students didn’t have a C average after two semesters, they had to sit out a semester, which also made them eligible for the draft. (I knew of two students who did end up in Vietnam.) No one talked much about that either, perhaps because the consequences could be so dire.

From my own experience, I concluded that my generation was under a lot of pressure, and depression and anxiety were probably common, but we just chose to suffer in silence. Hence, the higher rate of mental illness among today’s students was simply tied to the fact that people were more open about it. Some of the research literature agreed with my conclusion. However, other studies were finding that although people were more open about mental illness, other factors were involved, and the increase in mental illness among college students was real.

What could these factors be? Fear of school shootings, concerns about finding a good job to help pay off school loans, snowplow parents, grades, and the increased use of social media are commonly cited. In recent years, social media has garnered the most attention and has raised some intriguing questions. For instance, does the use of social media cause depression, or do students who are already depressed turn to it? One can certainly understand how cyberbullying could be harmful. On the other hand, a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that students who agreed to limit their smartphone use reported lower levels of depression, suggesting that use alone is associated with depression.

Doing something about student mental health has proved to be difficult. Schools have increased the size of their counseling departments, but we appear to need other strategies to ensure better mental health for new students. That’s where the idea of a gap year comes in—taking the year following high school graduation and engaging in some meaningful activity before starting college.

I soon discovered that, in the United States, taking a gap year is rare. Only about 3% of students do so. But in some countries, like Norway and Turkey, up to 50% of high school graduates take gap years. There hasn’t been a lot of research on the impacts of a gap year in the United States. However, the research that does exist is encouraging. For instance, in one survey, more than 90% of students taking a gap year reported they had developed as a person and were more mature and self-confident.

The question then becomes how to increase these numbers. Certainly, teachers and counselors can help get the word out and engage students who they feel would benefit from a gap year. Schools could provide information about gap year fairs held in various parts of the country. Parents also need to be informed about the potential benefits involved and that taking a gap year can help ensure an eventually successful college experience. Gap years can be international, where students experience a different culture, or can take place close to home, perhaps simply gaining experience in working and independent living. Unfortunately, no one is predicting a decline in mental illness among college students, so it’s time to try different strategies like gap years to help lessen the problem. For a closer look at these issues, see my article “Would a ‘Gap Year’ Reduce Mental Illness Among College Students?” in the July 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record.