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.

Trauma-Informed Strategies to Support Students During the Pandemic

By Pamela Kramer Ertel

When I learned that I would have to move my university-based courses to remote instruction for the remainder of the semester due to the pandemic, I was heartbroken. I grieved for my teacher candidates who were not going to get to do their second placement in their pre-student teaching residency experience. I grieved for all the missed learning opportunities and celebrations that would typically happen on campus.

I didn’t have much time to grieve these losses, because I knew I had to quickly switch gears and create the best possible learning experiences for my students. I recognized that we were all experiencing some sort of trauma and stress in dealing with the pandemic. While my students are not children, I knew the impact of stress and trauma could still seriously impact their ability to learn. I decided to use what I knew about trauma-informed care to help my students learn more effectively.

Pillar 1: Connection

Bath (2008) identified three pillars of trauma-informed care. One of the most important pillars is connection. “If children feel safe and connected to their teachers, they will be able to learn” (Call et al., 2014, p. 6). This is as true in elementary classrooms as it was for my more mature students. Strategies that can help children (and adults) feel safe include having a warm, welcoming voice, a positive greeting, and “soft eyes.” One of the reasons I opted to conduct my class using live Zoom sessions is that I wanted to be able to connect with my students, see their faces, read their emotions, and be able to respond to them on the spot.

I started each Zoom session with some calm, encouraging music videos. I used songs such as “It’s Going to Be Alright,” by Sara Groves; “Shower the People,” by James Taylor; and “Be a Light,” by Thomas Rhett. I selected these specific songs and videos because of their calming melodies and upbeat messages. I wanted to create a comfortable environment that was welcoming and supportive for students who were faced with uncertainty.

Pillar 2: Safety

The second pillar is safety. Bath (2008, p. 19), defines safety with characteristics such as “Consistency, reliability, predictability, availability, honesty, and transparency.” I tried to use a consistent, predictable format for each session. I started with a warm welcome and music, then presented the day’s “road map,” which included the objectives and the agenda for the session. I also allowed time for students to ask questions about anything. In the daily road map, I also posted a funny picture or cartoon to lighten the mood as we started each session.

Pillar 3: Emotional Regulation

The third pillar identified by Bath is emotional regulation. I know many of my students were feeling like they had no control over any aspect of their lives, and this is often even more acute with young learners. I tried to allow time for them to check in and share how they were feeling by using the poll feature on Zoom. I reminded them that we were going to get through this together. I knew that it was essential that I remain calm and compassionate, no matter how stressed I was feeling. In addition, I presented a clear outline of all course adjustments, which had been modified to meet their needs, so all expectations were transparent.

I also made myself vulnerable to my students by being honest about the things I did not know. For example, I had never even used Zoom before, so I willingly admitted that this was a new learning experience for me, too, as I modeled how to persevere in challenging teaching experiences, often through trial and error. I believe these actions helped my students better control their own emotions—something even more important for young students.

Additional Course Adjustments

Since my students were not able to do about half of their typical fieldwork, I searched to find the best possible videos to showcase actual classroom experiences. I found excellent videos on YouTube, The Teaching Channel, and Edutopia to help support their learning as they featured best teaching practices. We would then discuss the videos and applications to classroom practices.

Concluding Thoughts

I certainly did not have all the answers as I navigated the challenges presented by the pandemic. I am thankful that I was able to use what I knew about trauma-informed classrooms to help support my students during a particularly challenging time in our educational experience. I believe these three pillars of trauma-informed care can support learners of all ages.

Dr. Ertel is an Associate Professor at Middle Tennessee State University. She has been a teacher educator for 30 years, teaching at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania and Middle Tennessee State University. She is a past president of KDP.

References

Bath, H. (2008). The three pillars of trauma-informed care. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 17(3), 17–21. Call, C., Purvis, K., Parris, S.R., & Cross, D. (2014). Creating trauma-informed classrooms. Adoption Advocate, 75, 1–9.

A Day After

By Jody Googins
SPRING 2021

In the wake of the Capitol Building riot on January 6, 2021, I was “doom-scrolling,” the term for how we get sucked into social media in the wake of tragedy or stress, pulled down into the abyss of endless, mind-consuming information-gathering (Fitzgerald, 2020). I had been at it for over 24 hours at that point, stopping only to eat, sleep, and (kind of) work. I was spending far too much time at it, especially following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.

Like many others, I was having difficulty turning my brain off. I simply couldn’t stop thinking about all that was happening in our world and in our country, and the endless scrolling was an unwanted but addictive side effect.

Then I came across the following tweet from @JustinAion (2021): “A first year teacher asked me a question today. It shook me deeply. I will ask you. In your teaching career, how many times have you had a ‘day after?’”

I felt my heart skip and my breath catch. A day after. My thoughts immediately went to February 15, 2018, the day after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. I was teaching high school in Southwest Ohio and had watched the events unfold on the 14th. To put it mildly, I was wrecked. And angry. When I walked into school on the 15th, I felt like I was in a fog—but my students jolted me awake. They were angry, too. And motivated. In class that day, we talked and cried and hugged. We plotted and planned in the safety of our classroom community, grounded and secured by our common humanity. It was cathartic, and it was powerful.

February 15, 2018, was not my first day after; by then I had experienced many of them. Events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Newtown school shooting, the tragic deaths of students and parents and community members—each was followed by a day after, when emotions and opinions ran high. As a young teacher, contending with these days was difficult. I was not prepared to tangle with the emotions of my students; I was not fully able to create a safe environment where we could dialogue and process their emotions and feelings. I wasn’t warned about a day after in my teacher preparation program, and I was often overwhelmed. All these years later, I feel more prepared, more ready, but it is still daunting and draining and scary and hard.

The day after the Capitol riot, which followed several years of increasingly polarizing rhetoric culminating in the election of Joe Biden in November, would prove to be especially hard for teachers across the country. This particular day after was so politically charged, so messy, and its timing in the midst of the pandemic, on top of incredible fatigue on the part of teachers, was harrowing.

My two best friends—both incredible high school teachers—began preparing for the day after on the night of the Capitol riot, before the events were even clear or understood, if that was even possible. Our group text came alive as we exchanged ideas and writing prompts, warnings about what we could and should say, and what we definitely could not and should not say. We feverishly exchanged texts, giving advice and input on plans for the next day. They both planned on creating a space for their students to ask questions and engage in dialogue, mostly through image analysis, writing, and reflecting. They were readying themselves for what the day might be like, preparing for yet another day after.

One of my friends received an email from her superintendent in the late evening, reminding teachers that, although facilitating conversations is important, they must always follow Board of Education policy, which states that teachers are forbidden from promoting a “partisan point of view.” A partisan point of view? Our immediate thought was that, in these times, it seemed like the truth had become partisan. Regardless, a veteran teacher could easily ascertain the meaning: Don’t talk about what happened. Adding more confusion, the next day my friend received several emails from various building administrators who were incredibly supportive and encouraging, providing resources for dialogue and also for teacher self-care and care for students.

My other friend received a similar email from her superintendent, perhaps slightly less censoring, but no less consequential. She was encouraged to provide a safe environment for her students to dialogue, but to remain completely unbiased and calm. She said the email was accompanied with resources about remaining unbiased. It was laughable, really. The notion of remaining completely unbiased and calm was a big ask, an ask that we weren’t sure was even possible. After all, this wasn’t our first day after, and experience had taught us well. Young people are not stupid, nor are they walking blindly through the world. They are not self-absorbed, and they are not incapable of critically assessing the events unfolding around them. They are also incredibly attuned to the hypocrisy that adults around them practice, and they are quick to call us out.

When we touched base that next evening and debriefed on our days, I learned that their lessons had gone as well as they could have. Some of their students were so angry at the injustice that it was palpable; some of their students were clueless. Some students turned on their cameras for the first time in awhile; some kept them off, breaking from their norm.

These teachers were practiced in the day after. I was relieved that they had navigated their own emotions, the expectations of their schools and districts, and their students’ varying degrees of angst. I knew they would. But I could not stop thinking about how many teachers had struggled that day, and how many teachers were not prepared for a day after.

What are we doing to prepare our new and veteran teachers for the complexities of their classrooms, schools, and communities? How are we preparing them to contend with everything that students are bringing into the classroom? How are we preparing them to connect their classroom lives to all that is happening outside of their walls? How are we teaching them to look deep inside themselves for biases that might upend their ability to love and embrace their students and their experiences, experiences that might differ immensely from their own? I do not have quick, succinct, “a-ha” answers to these questions. But I do intend to keep asking them, to keep pushing my own pre-service teachers to consider what a day after might be like, what challenges might await them in their classrooms. Many people believe there should not be space in schools to talk about divisive events like the Capitol riots of 2021; that children and young people should be kept in the dark about the realities and complexities of the push and pull of democracy. I disagree. The kids are not in the dark. There will be another day after soon, and another after that. And those days will be hard. To pretend not to see the world around us and the ways our students are contending with their emotions, some of them suffering so deeply, would be turning a blind eye to what it is that calls us back into the classroom every day. I, for one, will continue to work with my friends and colleagues to meet the next day after with resilience, respect, and resolve.

Dr. Googins is an Assistant Professor of Secondary Education at Xavier University, where she teaches education methods and foundation courses at the undergraduate and graduate level. Her research interests include culturally responsive pedagogy, curriculum, and critical discourse analysis.

References

Fitzgerald, S. (2020, July 30). The internet wants to keep you ‘doom-scrolling.’ Here’s how to break free. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/coronavirus-doom-scrolling-stop/2020/07/29/2c87e9b2-d034-11ea-8d32-1ebf4e9d8e0d_story.html Justin [@JustinAion]. (2021, January 7).

A first year teacher asked me a question today. It shook me deeply. I will ask you. In your teaching [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/JustinAion/status/1347309286888779778

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.

Teaching and Trauma

By Sherrill Rayford

Dr. Rayford, a former high school English teacher, joined Kappa Delta Pi in college. She is a volunteer reviewer of KDP teaching scholarships. She facilitates a devotional group, and is an English adjunct. Her memoir, Teaching: Yakima Ball Vignettes, was published in 2019.

As a novice teacher, peers overwhelmed me with well-meaning advice: “Don’t smile until Christmas.” “Join the union.” “Never give your phone number to parents.”

The advice was often humorous, but I learned attributes of effective teaching from experienced colleagues. However, none of the mentors predicted trauma as an aspect of teaching.

The trauma I describe develops from events or mindsets that impact students’ ability to focus on learning, especially the acceptance of shortened lives or insignificance in society. Too many students I taught believed that they would not live for 18 years. They focused on repetitive violent treatment in society or traumatic incidents they experienced or witnessed in their neighborhoods. During a class discussion, I respectfully disagreed with a student who voiced the expectation that he, at age 16, would not live to be 18. I thought of my sons and the personal dreams I envisioned for them. I imagined those dreams for him, but prior events in his life made me understand why he accepted a shortened lifespan. After the discussion, I realized the significance of the artistically decorated “In Memorial” jackets students, the “In Memorial” tattoos on students’ arms and legs, and I began to ask for details of loved ones portrayed in the obituary programs students shared after attending funerals.

After 9/11, I read that teachers dutifully returned to school after traumatic events; however, that dedication may have limits. At times an administrative directive dictates how teachers should console students’ expressed trauma. For example, a student teacher I supervised was emotionally upset by a principal’s directive to forbid Black students from posing questions or discussing protests that occurred in the summer of 2014. The traumatic incident was partially aired through social media in real time. That same traumatic incident was fresh in the minds of students and staff in 2015 when I retired from the Ferguson–Florissant School District.

During a Kappa Delta Pi conference session in 2018, I posed the question, “How do you teach empathy when it is not in vogue?” Only the novice teacher seated near me responded, by sharing her email address, a website containing empathetic teaching strategies, the title of a “wonderful” book she read in a college course, and that she worked a few weeks in an urban school. I listened respectfully, but the explanation reminded me of the Justice Department’s professional development session I was required to attend in the aftermath of the 2014 protests. There are aspects of teaching best shared by listening rather than telling.

As inequality in living conditions, fear, actions or inactions from important leaders, curfews, Black Lives Matter protests, and COVID-19 trauma dominate since the summer of 2020, teachers will instruct students in remote or in-school locations with residual memories of the pandemic and its impact on spring instruction. Now more than ever, teachers must be mindful of how culturally connected traumatic events, an ongoing reality in education, impact teachers and learners.