How to lessen trauma when students with disabilities change learning models

Follow these tips to ensure students who may be experiencing trauma continue to learn
By: | February 8, 2021

As many students return to school buildings as part of a hybrid learning model, the discomfort of going back and forth between remote and in-person learning may exacerbate the trauma students are already experiencing.

Engaging students with disabilities in consistent activities and giving them choices can help them feel more rooted to school regardless of the learning environment and ensure they continue to receive free appropriate public education.

“Even if it’s little things, it’s something they feel they can grasp onto,” said Stephanie Filio, a middle school counselor at Virginia Beach (Va.) Public Schools. “Students are still actively going through the trauma.”

Follow these tips to ensure students who may be experiencing trauma continue to learn:

Promote consistency

Encourage teachers to start class by playing the same song or starting with the same introduction regardless of whether they’re teaching in person or remotely, Filio said.

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“Find little consistencies you can take into the virtual world, into the classroom, and back into the virtual world,” she said. “Even though it’s not going to heal the trauma of missing school or of what’s going on in society because we’re actively still in it, we’re sort of riding alongside of students. It’s a co-regulation kind of thing.”

Suggest teachers:

  • Ask a question that will pique students’ interest, such as, “What is the normal sleep cycle of a penguin?”, or a question regarding pop culture, such as “How many games of Among Us did you play yesterday?”
  • Every day, give students an entry ticket. They can write a journal entry or answer a question about what they are learning either remotely or in person.

“Instead of fearing the unknown and hesitating about going to class, they will feel safe going to class knowing what’s going to happen first,” Filio said.

Just be sure a teacher gives students notice before changing up how she will start class and that she seeks student input so they are not surprised by the change, Filio said.

Offer choices

Have teachers equip students with choice boards that feature different assignments to pick from or that allow them to select between parts of an assignment, Filio said. Teachers can also let students know they’re having a test on Friday with three sections and that they can choose which portion of the test on which they will be assessed.

Encourage teachers to use polls to find out which educational activity students would rather engage in the following day, Filio said.

“Letting students feel a sense of control over something gives them a sense of agency,” she said. “It will not damage the integrity of the content or learning environment, but students will see they were asked by an authority figure and given that opportunity to make a choice.”

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Just caution teachers not to point out to students that they’re giving them the choice for that reason, particularly if they’re working with students at the secondary level, Filio said. As soon as it’s viewed as intentional by an adult, students may reject it.

Embed social-emotional learning in classes

Advise teachers on how to promote empathy and other social-emotional skills within their content lessons, Filio said.

For example, students can work on taking others’ perspectives by interviewing a community member for a language arts assignment and writing about what they learned.

Connect student with trusted staff

Identify additional staff who a student trusts and will seek out if you or a student’s teacher are unavailable when a student needs to talk, Filio said.

“It might be a lot for one case manager now to handle,” she said. “But if you can recruit another teacher to check in who has a good relationship with the student, having that support is really important.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for LRP Publications.