Every teacher in every school has students who have experienced or are living with trauma in their lives—and many recognize that the trauma may be escalating with school closures.
We’re not in the same room as our students, but we still need to support their social-emotional health and help them cope in this unprecedented time. Some students are struggling to continue their studies in a less structured environment while feeling isolated or distracted. And many suffer continuous, recurring traumas that are amplified when they are forced to stay home.
Many students have had difficulties in life and have struggled to keep up in traditional high school. They have endured challenges such as homelessness, foster care, hunger, abuse, bullying, illness and even human trafficking. Eighty percent are low-income, many are pregnant or parenting teens, and most enroll with us after dropping out, more than a year behind in credits, and reading at lower than a fifth grade level.
Kids Need Someone Who Supports and Believes in Them
I believe that before you can reach a student’s head to learn, you have to reach their heart and earn their trust. Traumatized children who learn to thrive have someone in their life who encourages them and believes in their success. Educators should strive to be that support, and make sure this is a constant part of their educational experience.
All school leaders can educate teachers on a trauma-informed approach to learning now—during this pandemic—and beyond. Here are six key principles educators can implement now.
1. Recognize your own feelings first. Just like on an airplane, you must put on your own oxygen mask before you can help others. That starts with acknowledging the grief and dislocation we are all experiencing, and taking the self-care actions required to interact with others from a place of calm and empathy.
2. Stability with flexibility. In times of change and uncertainty, consistency with flexibility is important. Some teachers are setting appointments with their students in the evening so communication occurs regularly, but on the student’s schedule since many are working or have child-care constraints. Many teachers appreciate shifting their workday later so they can spend the morning with their own children before transitioning to their professional responsibilities.
3. Just listen and validate honestly. Adults often want to “fix” things, when instead, a student just wants to be heard and supported. Instead of saying, “don’t feel bad” or “be strong,” acknowledging a student’s feelings is the best way to earn trust and build a relationship. A supportive approach is most helpful, especially when we adults genuinely don’t have all the answers.
4. Encourage your students to ask for help. Be there when they reach out for support, but know when you need to refer your student to another professional. A crisis situation may require involvement and collaboration with child/adult protective services, a mental health response team, law enforcement or community mental health agencies. Let your students know that you will support them throughout the process, and then follow through.
5. Set appropriate expectations. Recognize each student’s abilities and current circumstances or barriers before setting expectations. Be clear about what you expect and your confidence in the student’s ability to rise to the occasion. Notice and celebrate each success, no matter how small.
6. Remind your students that they are not alone. Everyone could probably use that kind of reassurance these days. Students are not alone in their struggles even though they may sometimes feel they are. Research shows that when adversity feels like a shared experience, we cope better—not only emotionally, but neurologically. Creating opportunities for peer support allows students to help each other, sharing their strength and giving them a sense of purpose.
In the coming months and beyond, school leaders who understand and integrate trauma-informed practices into teaching will find greater and long-term success for students, and—after all—isn’t that what it’s all about.
Dr. Caprice Young is responsible for leading the Learn4Life Schools, serving more than 20,000 students in more than 85 learning centers in California, Ohio and Michigan. Raised in a host foster family, she identifies with and has committed her life to supporting students whose needs exceed the scope of traditional public schools. In 1999, Dr. Young left her technology strategy job at IBM to serve ...