As we continue to live through the pandemic, schools must keep shifting and adjusting to ongoing health concerns. Students have learned and teachers have taught in a variety of different formats, and sometimes multiple formats—virtual, hybrid, and in-person with new protocols in place. The ongoing challenges and unpredictable end to the pandemic, political divisiveness, and racial unrest have added to the stress many are experiencing.
Despite best efforts, the impact on student and staff is visible. The level of mental health needs in children has increased, as evidenced by the rise in mental health emergency room visits for children and adolescents. The need for children’s mental health support has increased at the same time a learner’s access to the teachers who provide regulation and SEL skill building has been compromised. Additionally, teachers are being asked to do things differently and with increased isolation, while also managing the impact of the pandemic on their own lives. We need to be socially and emotionally aware, both of ourselves and of our students, to promote student well-being and learning.
As we continue to navigate this school year, we need to be equipped to support students and staff as they persist despite changes to routines and learning environments during a time of ongoing uncertainty. The work of researchers and educators to create trauma-informed schools and classrooms can inform our approach to support the mental health of all staff and students at this unique time. This work invites us to think about the impact of trauma on learning, behavior, and development, to focus on relationships, and to set up our environments to promote healing.
Understanding Trauma in Children
It is critical to realize that behavior is communication. When a student responds emotionally to the demands of school or in interactions with others, their behaviors are telling us something about how they are feeling, taking in the environment, and processing the circumstances. When each of us experiences stress, our stress-response system is triggered, moving us into our fight-flight-freeze mode of responding. Hormones are activated that move our brains and bodies from thinking into responding, which helps us survive a threatening situation. This is God’s design for our bodies, to protect us in stressful situations.
However, when the stress-response system is activated repeatedly, this becomes a child’s natural way of processing and responding to experiences and creates dysregulation in brain functioning. A child then reacts to experiences out of the responsive and emotional areas of the brain, rather than viewing experience through the thinking part of the brain, which integrates emotions and experiences through reasoning. A child’s brain is particularly vulnerable because it is still developing and adapts to the stressful environment with the repetitive activation of the stress response system. Children that have experienced trauma then present with a range of behaviors: hyperactive, disengaged, aggressive, and over-reactive. And all of these behaviors impact learning.
During this time of uncertainty caused by the pandemic, our first step is to understand the stressors students, families, and staff have experienced. We can partner with families to have a better understanding and be better prepared to meet the needs of staff and students. When we understand how stressful experiences impact a child’s ability to stay regulated for learning and engagement, we are better equipped to support their growth and development. By providing a supportive and caring environment focused on fostering positive relationships, we can build each child’s social and emotional skills to better manage stress in this time of uncertainty.
Key Steps to Take
- Assess needs—ours and theirs. If we are going to support student learning well, we must first assess the needs. That begins with us. Educators must first take the time and space to assess how we are doing. If we do not take good care of ourselves, we will be ill-prepared to help our students. In addition, we also must assess the needs of our students and families to better plan and prepare for our community’s needs. This can be done informally through conversations and observation or through a formal survey to gather information about potential needs and concerns. In this survey developed by Panorama, questions can be adapted to gather information about family circumstances, at-home learning experiences, and staff and student well-being. This can provide valuable guidance to create robust and layered systems of support for staff, students, and families to meet educational, emotional, physical, and spiritual needs.
- Collaborate with students and families. It is important to build in ongoing opportunities for collaboration with students and families. By regularly seeking input, we can shorten the feedback loop, which will be critical as we adapt to the evolving circumstances. These connections can also provide supports for vulnerable families or students living in vulnerable situations. Whenever we receive feedback from families, we must ask whether or not the voices we are hearing represent the breadth of the community we serve. When we communicate well with families, we build a strong foundation for when we must address challenging student behaviors that may persist.
- Create safe and supportive learning environments. Healing happens through relationship. For some students, their teachers are a lifeline of support to stay regulated and engage effectively in learning and relationships. Research tells us that relationships can serve as a buffer, or protective factor, to the stressors that a child is experiencing. An open, calm, and reflective posture toward students enhances well-being and provides space for students to stay regulated in order to learn. In his book, Permission to Feel, Dr. Mark Brackett invites us to be emotional scientists, not emotional judges. Be curious about the emotions your students express and the behaviors that follow. This allows us to connect with students and express empathy. Make time for relationship-building during the school day, whether at school or online, incorporating activities to foster relationships among students and between teachers and students.
- Establish new routines. As you continue to navigate the ongoing changes created by the pandemic, routines will likely continue to look different than they have in the past. Developing common language for the changes in routine can promote student understanding and responsiveness to these changes. Acknowledge with students that this is and has been a time of uncertainty and that stress related to these changes is normal. Acknowledge negative emotions and model a calm response to changes; this communicates to students that although routines will be different, you will figure it out together. Claim Scripture together as a way to acknowledge God’s ongoing presence and work in our lives, such as Joshua 1:9, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go,” and Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Embed patterned, repetitive, and rhythmic movement, music, or other sensory activities that promote self-regulation throughout the daily schedule. When adjusting to new routines, be sure to provide this information in a developmentally appropriate format with visual supports and concrete language.
- Consider the physical classroom. If students are in stress, they are not learning. Providing spaces, time, and tools to return to calm promotes self-awareness and self-regulation, guiding the student back to a state of learning. As students continue to navigate the pandemic, think about the physical space they are entering, both in your school buildings and classrooms. Pay attention to the sensory input (noises, brightness, colors, smells), these can foster or hinder learning for students with heightened alertness due to stress. Is there a designated space or spaces with activities and materials that can foster calm (coloring pages, headphones, manipulatives, movement)? If shared spaces are not possible, can you create a mobile calm-down kit that students can take back to their assigned seating options?
- Build social and emotional skills. A school-wide approach to teaching social and emotional learning (SEL) skills will foster common language throughout the school building, providing consistent and developmentally appropriate instruction of skills including self-awareness, self-regulation, and relationship skills. Whether learning is occurring at home, at school, or a mix of both this year, online SEL materials are available to support the learning needs of students with varied abilities (Second Step, Mindset Works, Social Thinking). Teaching SEL skills can also be embedded during the day through the questions you ask about a child’s experiences, the modeling of appropriate social and emotional skills, and explicit teaching of SEL skills within your curriculum. Consider also how your classroom and school policies and procedures respond when conflict occurs. Do your current practices promote the SEL skills you are trying to develop in your students? The relationally focused interventions provided through approaches like Restorative Practices provide teaching opportunities for SEL skills focused on repairing relationships when harm has occurred.
- Promote staff well-being. Not only do students need safe and supportive learning environments, but teachers do as well. Although stress and teacher well-being are not new concerns, the disruption to learning and need to adapt familiar teaching practices has likely increased teacher stress and anxiety. We are all experiencing stressful elements of the pandemic. It is crucial to heed and attend to symptoms of fatigue and stress in our own lives, both for our own well-being and the well-being of our students. What are the activities you use to stay calm and regulated? Embed those into your day. Allow time for connection among staff to listen, debrief, and pray together. Provide opportunities for reflection when new school procedures or teaching practices are implemented. Name the losses, frustrations, and challenges. Lament. Celebrate successes. Practice gratitude. Prioritize building these routines into the school day, perhaps starting each day with staff devotions or providing a short check-out circle at the end of the day or week.
In Psalms, David creates pictures of the range of human emotion. We live in a fallen, broken, and uncertain world, and our response to traumatic events is a visible and tangible experience of that brokenness. Our current reality may lead us and our students to feelings of despair, anxiety, and fear. In Psalm 13:5-6, we read, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” Through it all, our good God is with us and invites us into the restorative and redemptive work of Christ through Christian education.
[Editor’s Note: Meet Betsy Winkle at ACSI’s Directors’ Day on Feb. 26 as she leads us toward a better understanding of trauma so that we can be equipped to support the learning and behavior of students in our early education programs. Choose the start time that works for you. Register here].
Costello, B., J. Wachtel, and T. Wachtel. 2009. The Restorative Practices Handbook: For Teachers, Disciplinarians, and Administrators. Bethlehem, PA: International Institute for Restorative Practices.
Forbes, H. T. 2012. Help for Billy. Boulder, CO: Beyond Consequences Institute, LLC.
Harris Burke, N. 2015. TED Talk: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk&t=6s.
Jennings, P. A. 2018. The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom: Building Resilience with Compassionate Teaching. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Sorrels, B. 2015. Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.
Sporleder, J. and H.T. Forbes. 2016. The Trauma-Informed School: A Step-by-Step Implementation Guide for Administrators and School Personnel. Boulder, CO: Beyond Consequences Institute, LLC.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2014. SAMSHA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. Rockville, MD: Author.
About the Author
Betsy Winkle, EdS, combines her passion for education and reconciliation in her role as director of evaluation services at All Belong. Fueled by a passion for helping each child flourish and develop their God-given gifts, Betsy enjoys walking alongside parents and teachers to help them understand how each struggling child thinks and learns and creating structures within schools that support all students. She is particularly interested in the impact of life circumstances and mental health on a child’s educational success. Betsy received her Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Calvin College and her Master of Arts and specialist degrees from Lehigh University. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: This article was originally published in February ’21. We have re-published it to bring to the top of your inbox at the start of another school year with COVID-19 concerns still present.