For most of us, thinking about the fall and winter months conjures up happy memories—hayrides, big family dinners, and presents galore. However, the holiday season can be difficult for our students affected by trauma.

Often students affected by trauma do not have fond memories of these times.  Whether they recall arguing among family members, tragedy within their home, or no celebration at all, the fall and winter seasons for our students can bring about depression, aggression, increased tension, stress, and more.

The celebration-filled months of October, November, and December include activities both in and out of the school setting.  In order to create a sense of calm in our students affected by trauma, several strategies can be used to avoid negative situations.

Watch the Signs

Signs of trauma include:

  • Isolation
  • Escalating behaviors
  • Risky behaviors
  • Change in appearance
  • Change in personality
  • Difficulty sleeping

Follow Your Routine

Keep a routine at school. If Friday always entails a spelling test, keep it up each Friday. In general, students do well if they know their routine is not going to change and they are able to anticipate what is happening next. Therefore, keeping a regular routine each day is important to avoid triggers and disregulated behaviors. If routines need to be changed, your best practice is to pre-teach the events coming up so that there is still some semblance of regularity.

Avoid Sensory Overload

Students affected by trauma are often sensitive to many events that include noise, overcrowded areas, or excessive bright lights. These sensory inputs can easily trigger students with trauma, pushing them to the edge and creating behavior issues. Educators should avoid changes in lighting in their rooms and in the school, along with reducing the noise levels and limiting large group events to avoid maladaptive behavior.

Stay Positive

Students experiencing the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) often have low self-esteem and regularly look at themselves as the root cause of those bad things happening in their lives.  This time of year can trigger negative memories for students with ACEs through specific sounds or smells. Educators need to be aware of very subtle nuances that can trigger larger negative events.

Some great ways to respond to students experiencing trauma would be:

  • Listen (allow students to talk to a trusted adult)
  • Teach coping skills (take five, take a walk, exercise, etc.)
  • Be mindful of school celebrations (pre-teach changes)

Psychological First Aid

As educators, we are all capable of offering “psychological first aid.”

  • We can listen by identifying a trusting adult for students in crisis.
  • We can protect students by ensuring safety throughout the school day.
  • We can connect by listening to students and help to restore the wrong.
  • We can model by using verbal and non-verbal cues with students so that they feel valued and understood.
  • We can teach by creating small goals for students to reach in learning how to cope with ACEs around the holiday season.

As we approach the holidays this year, remember to keep strong routines and pre-teach instances that fall out of the ordinary routine. Avoid sensory overload and create calming areas in our classrooms. Lastly, stay positive and encourage the positive in your students.

Robyn Harris is principal of Whaley School in Anchorage, AK. She is the 2018 Alaska Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@WhaleySchool), Facebook (Whaley School), and her blog (


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