On nearly every campus nationwide, educators find themselves struggling with a problem that is mostly overlooked in teacher preparation programs: how to address the needs of students who have experienced trauma. Teachers feel a passion for what they do and want to make a positive difference in the lives of children, but students with trauma have needs that some teachers are ill-equipped to address. Traumatic experiences generally impact students negatively and affect daily peer and teacher interactions. Educators can create environments to alleviate student worries and help students feel respected, safe, and able to succeed academically. 

Trauma is defined as a troubling personal experience that affects behavior, thoughts, and even emotions; it interrupts normal behaviors and hinders rational thought processes. Some students are visibly distressed while others internalize their experiences. Regardless of how students reveal their trauma, schools can create programs that help students manage the effects of trauma and be successful. Effective trauma programs should include: 

  • Identifying students in need of help and creating a safe space for students to recover in a trusting environment
  • Giving students time to process and connect to adults who will listen to what they say 
  • Showing students that they are surrounded by school personnel who genuinely care
  • Developing and regularly reviewing ongoing plans for support that may include coordinating counseling and outside services 

Identifying Students and Creating a Safe Space 

Making students feel safe on campus doesn’t happen instantly, but it can be done over time with proper oversight and an emphasis on safety and student well-being. So, how do educators identify those students who need help? Recently, more and more teachers have been devoting the beginning portions of class to student mental health check-ins. Teachers may identify parts of their whiteboard for students to self-share their state of mind or even create a quick, informal check-in with a few simple statements. For instance, some teachers will ask students to raise their hands for the statement that best conveys their current emotions: “I’m ready for school today,” or “I’m struggling today, but I still want to stay in class,” or “It’s been an awful morning and I need some space.” 

In creating safe spaces, it is also important for teachers to understand that they may be the first adult connection a student has on any given day. This puts a tremendous amount of weight on this first interaction because one initial negative encounter with an adult leader can trigger a student and exacerbate the effects of trauma. For instance, if a student comes to school late, and the first adult they see asks why they were late—instead of welcoming them to school—it could set the tone for an antagonistic day that makes a student feel unwelcome and that their experiences will not be valued or understood. This is not to say that students should not be held accountable for attendance—only that school personnel need to assume positive intent in student interactions, as students may be in the midst of processing a negative experience and may be looking for someone to help them.

Once teachers identify students dealing with trauma, the focus should turn to support. Some support can consist of engaging students with individual conversations or having students work with friends on academic assignments. But for those students that find they are overwhelmed, a designated safe room in the building or a counselor’s office may be necessary. 

Safe rooms should be introduced to students well before they need them, not during a moment when the student is in crisis. For instance, during the first week of school, teachers can review with all students that there’s a safe place to go outside the classroom, such as the front office. Furthermore, teachers can emphasize that all students are welcome to seek help without shame or penalty. When students face trauma, they may feel isolated, alone, and helpless, but the more information adult leaders provide to students early on about how to respond when they are in distress, the more likely they will be prepared to take steps toward recovery.

Surrounding Students With Caring Adults

Depending on the situation, the adult who takes the lead in addressing student trauma could be a teacher, school counselor, or administrator. As adult leaders, we need to work together so that each member of the educational team places an emphasis on listening to students. Students who experience trauma have a tough time processing what has happened. Some students struggle with basic needs in traumatic times, ranging from where they will get lunch to who will be at the family home or if they will even be allowed in the family home. At these times of uncertainty, students carefully watch the adults around them. They want to know if teachers and staff truly care. 

In some cases, students need additional time to comprehend their experiences; they may realize as they are sharing about their trauma that what they had perceived as normal is actually not and more frightening than their first impression. In addition, when a student discusses a troubling experience, an adult at school may realize the trauma that a student faces needs to be reported to the proper legal authorities for additional assistance. All staff members should be familiar with current district, state, and federal statutes regarding trauma reporting and be aware of the internal and external resources available to help students recover.

Once teachers have listened to students who face trauma, they must begin to work on a plan of support. In some cases, this may require immediate notification of local law enforcement or child welfare services. In other cases, it may entail referring the student to school-based counseling or having a teacher do frequent check-ins to assure the student that adults at school care about their well-being. 

Support and Follow Up

Even if students who face trauma require services beyond the normal scope of a school, it’s important to establish plans for in-school support. Just as student athletes who are injured have return-to-school activities protocols, students who face trauma should have similar care. At a minimum, once a student is identified as having experienced trauma, it’s important that all of the student’s teachers are notified so that they can better support the student and report on the student’s progress as necessary.

All systems that support students should undergo regular reviews for effectiveness. This is especially important for programs that serve students who have experienced trauma. Not only does trauma affect students differently, but the causes of trauma may change for any given individual or community. Regular review of collected data regarding trauma will allow schools to assess, adjust, and even predict how they can best help their students.

Following up with individual students is also important. Once the school team reaches a point where they feel they have addressed and assisted in the recovery of students who face trauma, they should gather qualitative data from the students themselves. This can be a quick check-in to ask how the student is doing, or to ask how the school helped them through their traumatic experiences. Such meetings allow the student to share whether or not they have reached closure, or if they need additional support. 

Every school community is unique, and it is advantageous for educators to learn the unique culture of their school in order to help their students. Affluent schools may have students who face different challenges than those of less affluent communities; however, all educators have the responsibility to meet the needs of their students. It is important for school leaders to understand their students and communities and to make sure they show genuine care. When our schools focus on providing care, support, and direction for all students, we increase the possibilities for students with trauma and allow them to find a better future. 

Steven Amaro, EdD, CMAA, is an assistant principal at Freedom High School in Oakley, CA.