Trauma-informed teaching tops 4 ways to help kids (and adults) cope with COVID

Trauma could be triggered by a test or a negative social interaction, expert says
By: | August 27, 2021

The traumas that students have suffered during the pandemic may not be readily apparent during the first days or weeks of school.

Warning signs, such as acting out or withdrawal, may actually lie dormant in a process of stress and healing that will be ongoing, says Alison Miller an associate professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.

“Some kids might hold it together really well in the first days or weeks of school and then fall apart later,” Miller says. “The trauma might not be triggered until they have an exam or a negative social interaction. It’s not going to be a one-time event; it’s not going to be just clicking back into the routine.”

Miller offers guidance to administrators and their teams:

1. Balancing academic and social-emotional recovery: Administrators and teachers, particularly during the first half of the 2021-22 school year, need to carefully navigate the balance between academic and social-emotional recovery.

“If you’re in a community that’s really been hit hard, your lift as an administrator and a teacher is going to be difficult in terms of the number of students coming with trauma,” Miller says. “In all likelihood, this was true before the pandemic, and it’s become more egregiously obvious and stark.”

2. Taking a trauma-informed approach: This requires teachers to treat students’ disruptive behavior in a non-punitive way. Teachers and administrators, therefore, need to learn their own coping skills, such as taking a deep breath before responding.

“You always have to be asking yourself what happened to the child that they are exhibiting that behavior,” she says. “When we’re in a state of trauma and anxiety, when a child is having intrusive thoughts, it’s almost impossible to pay attention to something external.”

Other approaches teachers can take include diffusing potentially hostile classroom discussions around politics, misinformation and conspiracy theories, and other divisive issues.

“Try to steer the discussions around respect,” she says. “People are coming in with lots of families members having had COVID or died. People who have that experience might want to keep wearing masks even though the principal says they don’t have to.”

3. Rely on each other: Teachers can hone a more supportive mindset with teaching teams and professional learning communities where they can share ideas and even blow off steam. Miller recommends that teachers manage their expectations for students’ academic recovery and not rush to make up unfinished learning too quickly.

4. Don’t forget about the adults: Administrators should take the same approach to teachers and other educators who are also coping with the stress and trauma of the pandemic, Miller says.

“Investing in relationships in a preventative way is critical; take the opportunity to share positive moments,” she says. “When things get stressful, you have a more positive basis to manage it.”

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