Loss breeds all kinds of emotions. And let’s face it, all of our students have experienced some form of loss since the pandemic—loss of routine, family members, basic needs, or community stability. Educators must consider the impact of this most recent event (and events that happened to our students before the pandemic) when preparing for instruction.
Trauma-informed practices—such as creating safe and supportive learning environments and helping students develop consistent, positive relationships with peers and adults—are powerful ways to promote resilience in children and youth. But distance learning creates barriers to students’ access to safe environments, healthy relationships, and needed supports.
Recovery and resilience must be the goal of any educator. The incorporation of programs and practices that promote recovery and build resilience should be woven throughout strategic planning. Recovery includes any program, practice, or procedure where students and teachers are provided with the opportunity for reflection and expression.
Children who have lived through adverse experiences or have fragile attachment do not feel safe on a molecular level. They do not naturally possess what we call “three-dimensional safety.” One-dimensional safety is derived from knowing your environment. The doors of the school are locked. Visitors must enter and be greeted by someone at the main entrance. Students can feel one-dimensional safety by looking around and knowing the rules. Three-dimensional safety goes much deeper. Am I safe from judgment? Do people like me? Am I good enough? Do people accept me? Will anyone help me? Children who have their needs met, emotionally and physically, develop three-dimensional safety as they grow. Children who do not have all of their needs met remain in survival mode. Their amygdala is constantly firing, increasing their need to freeze, flee, or fight. They struggle to learn from their mistakes. In their minds, a misspelled word is evidence that they are stupid. The pandemic has brought with it a whole new set of fears. Will I become sick? Will my parents get sick? Will we lose our house? When will I go back to school?
Leaders need to look for classroom and schoolwide strategies, in person and virtually, that will support the development of safety for their students. Children need to know that we accept their past, support their present, and encourage their future. The most important strategy for developing safety is language. The use of relationship-building language will develop safety in students and will help your teachers shift their paradigm from a traditional lens to a trauma-informed one.
When you ask someone, “What’s wrong with you?” you are implying that something is wrong with them. This is especially what students of trauma hear, as they are ever on the lookout for threats to their three-dimensional safety. Relationship-building language sounds more like, “How can I help?” or “What’s in your way?” If you have a student who is not turning in work, asking how you can help communicates that you are there for the student—that you support their past and accept their present.
Teachers are considered “connected” to students when they know five things about the student outside of the student’s academic profile. Students are connected when they express a sense of belonging and being a part of the school. Connected students perceive that their teachers are supportive and caring. They believe that they have at least one friend in school. They believe that discipline practices and procedures are fair and effective.
Connection is an important part of school success for all students, with or without trauma. Students who feel connected in school have been shown to have better attendance, increased motivation, improved academic performance, and improved school completion rates compared with students who do not feel connected. During the quarantine, teachers reported better academic gains from the students with whom they had a strong connection before the pandemic.
Establish practices and strategies for making sure all of your students are connected to one caring adult in your school. Two strategies recommended for checking on connection are the Connect the Dots activity and Data Mining.
Connect the Dots: This can be done in person or remotely and should be done as a staff, grade level, or department, depending on your school’s size. Generate a thumbnail picture of each of your students. Arrange the images on chart paper in rows with a good deal of space between rows. Give each staff member five sticker dots, and ask them to place a dot under the picture of the five students they feel most connected to in the school. (They can select students who are not in their class or grade level.) When everyone is finished, you will have a bar graph of connection. Some students will have many dots, some a few, and some students will not have any dots. Those students who have no dots need someone on staff to volunteer to make a connection.
Data Mining: This is most effective in middle level and high schools—where there are many clubs, sports, and extracurricular activities. Using your student database, run the lists of student participants for all extracurriculars against the entire student population. Look for names that fall out. Those are the students that are not involved in any extracurricular activity and who are not connected to your school. Bring that list to your student support team. Assign staff members who are responsible for reaching out to these students and checking in on them.
Many adults and children, with and without early childhood adversity, are experiencing heightened anxiety and worry as a result of the pandemic and subsequent quarantine. Our stress response systems are working overtime because there are so many unknowns, and much of our routine has changed. We can improve our experience through this time by learning to regulate our stress response systems. Research resources that teach about the limbic system, which controls stress response. Regulation tools can include glitter wands, Silly Putty, small puzzles, coloring, and doodling. Consider hosting evening webinars for parents who are working with their students in virtual classrooms, and teach the use of regulation tools that can be used in home study areas.
Consider creating a regulation space or a calm corner on Google Classroom. Include links to YouTube videos that reduce stress, such as yoga videos or music made from song bowls. Keep in mind:
- Teachers must have a firm understanding of why students benefit from the use of regulation tools; they are not a reward or consequence.
- Students must be taught about their brains before the rollout of tools.
- Students should be explicitly taught about the tools and how they are to be used.
Students who use regulation tools while studying have been shown to increase their on-task performance time. Creativity is increased. Students are more likely to persevere through challenging content.
This is especially beneficial in virtual learning environments. If you are already using regulation tools, make sure your students have access to them in their homes. One school was able to provide a tool to every student thanks to a donation from their PTA. Start with the teachers. Give each staff member a silicon sponge and ask them to squeeze it each day and report back at the end of two weeks. Organize a faculty meeting where the benefits of tools are explained. Consider a webinar for parents. Record the live event and put it on your website.
The antidote for loss and grief is hope. Use the word often—it needs to be explicitly taught. Encourage teachers to point out the hope for the future. Help students identify things about which they are thankful or happy. Create hopeful bulletin boards—one example featured pictures of the school staff with word clouds coming from the pictures: “We missed you and are glad you are back!”, “This is going to be a great year!”, “We are strong together!”
Recent research shows that people under stress process as much as 50 percent less language per communication exchange than people who are not under stress. We are all under some degree of stress as a result of the pandemic. Take the time to assess connection in your schools. Create opportunities for teachers to learn to get regulated and teach the students to become regulated during class. Talk about hope. Define hope. Share hope. Explicitly teach hope. Lead with hope!
Melissa Sadin, EdD, is a former building administrator and director of special education. She has written four books on creating trauma-informed schools and provides professional development in schools nationwide.