Traumatic stress is a serious problem that has significant implications for schools. Nearly 35 million children and adolescents—or about 72 percent of those under age 18—have experienced at least one acute stress event that could lead to traumatic stress (e.g., witnessing or being a victim of violence; experiencing sexual, physical, or emotional abuse; suffering a serious injury or medical condition; or experiencing the death of a parent or sibling).
When a crisis event directly impacts the school community, such as the violent death of students or a devastating natural disaster, the risk of traumatic stress can have ripple effects throughout the school community. Indeed, the importance of understanding the extent of our students’ traumatic experiences and their effects on learning, behavior, and physical and emotional well-being has become a priority issue for educators nationwide.
Secondary school administrators can help minimize the short- and long-term consequences of traumatic events by ensuring staff are able to engage in trauma-informed educational practices. These practices include making sure that staff members know trauma is widespread, are taught to recognize the signs and symptoms of traumatic stress, reinforce resilience and connectedness within the school community, and have access to effective mental health supports and resources.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is defined as a deeply disturbing or distressing event in which someone experiences, witnesses, or learns about actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Quite simply, if an individual views the event as threatening, then the likelihood is greater that they will be traumatized.
Threat perceptions are influenced by:
- The nature of the crisis event itself.
- Intensity and duration of the crisis exposure.
- Relationships with crisis victims.
- Adult reactions to the trauma.
- A variety of individual/personal vulnerability factors. An especially critical vulnerability factor is the presence of a trauma history; students who have experienced multiple traumatic events are at risk for what is often referred to as toxic stress.
Childhood trauma can have a lasting impact and increase the risk for psychological, behavioral, or emotional problems (e.g., depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse). These serious health problems are associated with low occupational attainment or academic failure, social maladjustment, and poor medical health.
Not everyone exposed to a traumatic event will experience traumatic stress. How a student (or staff member) reacts to a crisis is entirely dependent on risk factors specific to them. Importantly, increased risk for traumatic stress in adolescents can result from chronic or current experience or a trauma experience in earlier childhood, so the process for determining risk needs to be comprehensive and longitudinal. Certain characteristics associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing traumatic stress include:
- Proximity to a traumatic event (physical or relational)
- Past exposure to trauma (multiple exposures results in toxic stress)
- Current or past mental health problems, or the presence of a disability
- Parental substance abuse or mental illness
- Limited social support or isolation
- Family stress
- Loss of or fear of the loss of a loved one
- Community characteristics (e.g., high rates of community violence)
- Developmental level (i.e., immaturity is associated with greater risk)
- Poverty level
Reactions and Warning Signs
Common reactions to a trauma are shock or disbelief, fear, sadness, guilt/shame, grief, confusion, pessimism, or anger. For adolescents, reactions can manifest in a variety of ways that can impact their school experience, including:
- Disruption or withdrawal from peer relationships (often associated with irritable and aggressive behaviors and feeling changed or socially undesirable)
- Increased recklessness
- General lack of energy or lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Strained family relationships (increased misbehavior, lashing out against family members, refusal to participate in normal routines)
- Physical complaints with no apparent cause
- Maladaptive coping (drug or alcohol use, severe aggression)
- Repeated nightmares and reporting strong fears of death, violence, etc.
- Low self-esteem, negative talk about self (if this was not apparent prior to the trauma)
- Sleeping and eating disturbances
These reactions are especially concerning if they interfere with daily functioning and are long-lasting (i.e., do not begin to lessen a week or more following exposure to an acute traumatic stressor). It is important to note that symptoms can be delayed, particularly in the case of ongoing or extended trauma experiences such as loss of home and community as the result of a disaster.
Left unaddressed, traumatic stress reactions can have a negative impact on school outcomes. This can include decline in school performance, school avoidance, or difficulty concentrating, which can result in lower academic achievement from a reduced ability to organize, problem-solve, and process and remember information. Academic, behavioral, and social problems can lead to increased referrals for special education, escalating discipline problems, and higher suspension and expulsion rates. School adjustment difficulties are especially common among students who have experienced toxic stress (chronic and ongoing trauma).
Educators can help reduce potentially severe psychological effects by monitoring students who might be at greater risk and by getting them help immediately. School-based mental health professionals—school psychologists, social workers, and counselors—can help teachers, administrators, and parents identify students in need of extra help and can also help identify appropriate referral resources in the community. Distinguishing “normal” from extreme reactions to traumatic events requires training, and any concern about a student should be referred to a mental health professional.
What Schools Can Do
Establishing a place of safety, security, and connectedness is critical to decreasing the impact of a traumatic event. The school climate needs to balance student behavioral expectations with compassionate and trustful student/adult relationships, provide structure and routine, and be a place where students feel safe disclosing traumatic experiences.
Principals can make sure their school staff members are able to recognize risk factors and warning signs of traumatic stress and know how to respond to these students thoughtfully and with compassion. Typically, the school psychologist, social worker, or counselor can offer staff development, as well as conduct screenings of students who might need a referral to expert providers in the community. Consider these five recommendations to support students who may be dealing with traumatic stress.
- Train staff in trauma-informed practices. One of the most important factors that can protect against serious trauma reactions is being part of a caring support network. Make certain that all school staff members understand the effects of toxic stress (also known as complex trauma). These chronic trauma exposures affect cognitive functioning and not only adversely impact the ability to learn, but also affect how students view the world. These students may, for example, overreact to minor interpersonal conflicts with extreme aggression given that they have learned, over time, to expect personally threatening events.
- Establish a mental health crisis intervention team. These teams are designed to assist students and personnel to cope with psychologically traumatic events and to identify those who need professional mental health. Team members may need additional training in crisis intervention. It also may be necessary to identify trained personnel in the district and/or coordinate training and staff resources with other schools or neighboring districts.
- Learn which students may be at increased risk for developing severe trauma reactions. Provide caregivers with information regarding the risk factors and symptoms of trauma. Encourage them to tell their child’s teacher, school psychologist, or counselor if their child has experienced a previous traumatic event or personal loss, has a mental health problem, or is exhibiting warning signs. Ideally, caregivers should know to share this information under any circumstances, but they should be reminded immediately following a crisis event involving members of the school community.
- Encourage students to seek help. Although individuals cannot self-diagnose severe trauma reactions, adolescents can recognize when they or a friend are experiencing problematic symptoms. Schools need to reinforce that students should tell a trusted adult any time their feelings or thoughts interfere with their normal routine. Student self-reporting can augment, but not replace, adult observation of students impacted by a traumatic event.
- Ensure that a range of school- and community-based interventions are available for students and staff. For the minority of students who need intensive professional mental health assistance, it is critical that the school identify local mental health providers with expertise in working with victims of traumatic stress, including psychotherapy training known as cognitive-behavioral therapy. This form of treatment has documented effectiveness in helping individuals to recover from more severe trauma, such as PTSD.
Schools play an important role in decreasing the impact of a traumatic event on students. Reinforcing safety and connectedness is paramount. Educators should provide the structure of a usual routine, offer a safe place to share concerns, be sensitive to cues in the environment that may trigger a traumatic response, and provide additional supports whenever possible.
Katherine C. Cowan is director of communications for the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and staff liaison to NASP’s School Safety and Crisis Response Committee. Stephen E. Brock, PhD, NCSP, LEP, is professor and school psychology program coordinator at California State University-Sacramento, lead author of the PREPaRE School Crisis Prevention and Intervention Training Curriculum, and member of the NASP School Safety and Crisis Response Committee.