No child left behind: How educators can support students affected by trauma

This article was originally published by Study International.

We’re all shaped by our life experiences but for some school-going children, bearing witness or being a victim of trauma – natural or caused by other people – can negatively affect their performance in school.

Neglect, displacement due to conflict or natural disasters, poverty, witnessing violence and/or experiencing physical or verbal abuse are just some examples of situations that can interfere with their learning and behaviour.

Regardless of whether they’re physical or psychological, the negative effects of trauma can manifest into emotional and physical symptoms such as anxiety or anger, difficulty sleeping, concentrating or forming relationships with others. For some, these symptoms may gradually decrease over time, but for others, they don’t, and continue to interfere with daily life.

The American Psychological Association notes: “A significant number of children in American society are exposed to traumatic life events”, adding that, “In community samples, more than two-thirds of children report experiencing a traumatic event by age 16.”

As traumatic events can negatively impact a child’s overall functioning, including academically, the question of whether schools are doing enough to support students affected by trauma becomes pertinent.

With students spending a sizeable chunk of their time in school, what can educators do to foster a more conducive environment that promotes students’ healing?

While teachers can’t replace professional help and may already be busy with their daily tasks, having a culture of caring and respect within the school’s ecosystem can prove useful in supporting students affected by trauma.

A Mind Shift report notes that teachers are well-positioned to make a big impact on students’ lives. They said: “Positive relationships with caring adults can help buffer students from the effects of trauma and chronic stress, making trauma-informed schools ‘healing places’.”

Dr Linda Darling-Hammond, President and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute, was quoted in the report, saying: “If you’re fearful, if you’re anxious, if you’re distracted about something that’s happened to you, you literally can’t learn. Your brain shuts down.

“So it’s essential to give kids social and emotional tools that allow students to recover from the challenges that they have experienced. Take actual classroom time to work on the building blocks of how to perceive your emotions, how to talk about them, how to get along with other people, how to take a moment and become calm when you need to, how to express your needs so that others can meet them.”

Other strategies highlighted in the report include:

  • Pair students affected by trauma with a mentor for some one-on-one time. This enables them to check in with an adult and build trust. These meetings need to be consistent, even if the student has misbehaved.
  • Staff can also meet in teams to discuss students, giving them a helicopter view of their strengths and weaknesses, and allowing them to provide support where needed.

Meanwhile, the National Resilience Institute believes schools could be more trauma-informed by:

  • Educating educators to understand trauma’s impact on students’ learning
  • Help students feel safe (physically, socially, emotionally and academically)
  • Meet students’ needs by taking into account their relationships, academic competence, etc.
  • Provide a platform for students to practice newly-developing skills and connect with the school community
  • Staff to embrace shared responsibility for all students
  • Staff to anticipate and adapt to the changing needs of students