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Curriculum, Policy, Research, School Community, Well-being

Trauma and the Post-COVID Teacher

Caring beyond the curriculum as schools reopen across Canada

It was on the third walk of the day, a couple weeks into our COVID isolation norms, that it hit me. My little girl, at the formative age of five, was living in a global pandemic. We were pointing out the teddy bears that neighbours placed in their windows for children to spot during the pandemic. It warmed my heart that so many of my community members, many without children, found old teddies and dolls to place on display to join in the bear campaign. A couple walking their dog approached from the opposite direction, and my daughter, who was walking ahead, without hesitation or reminder took her long six-foot arc around them as we passed. She turned and mouthed the word “virus” to us and carried on. 

As we all attempt to restore normalcy in our lives and jobs (whatever our “normal” may be) in the aftermath of a global crisis, there is much to consider. For teachers, this is above and beyond the daily challenges we already face. For some students, COVID 19 may result in, or amplify preexisting, anxiety, depression or trauma. For others the transition back to school and routine will be seamless. Coronavirus will become a distant memory for them, and life will carry on as it did before. I think about my daughter and her support system and how she’s been so fortunate in her life. Others aren’t as lucky, before or after COVID 19.

Much is unknown about the circumstances in homes across this country during the pandemic. What happened in the months of isolation? We may never fully know. How did the long confinement affect homes where domestic violence, abuse or neglect was already present? Of course we know there were students and families who were struggling long before the global pandemic. Some children live within circumstances that are troubling and far beyond their control. Families living on the edge of poverty may have already been struggling with food and home insecurity, lack of childcare, stress over jobs, community violence and more. We know that along with increased risk factors from COVID 19, families have also been deprived of many of their normal coping measures. Spending time with friends and family, going to the mall, seeing a counselor or engaging in extra-curricular activities, among others, have been disrupted. And for many students, their place of refuge, connection or support, is school itself.

Trauma has and will continue to be a pervasive and challenging issue for teachers and students alike. This global crisis has placed a spotlight on various aspects of society, including its multi-faceted inequities – trauma included. It also has certainly served as a reminder that children in schools need more than just their educational outcomes, and that schools serve as more than just educational institutions.

Teaching students with trauma

Students who experience chronic trauma (persistent and ongoing, such as adverse living conditions or abuse) are at risk for developmental deficits, attachment disorders and difficulties with learning and behaviour.1 This causes problems for them in school as they attempt to navigate the social, academic and behavioural expectations for their chronological age, while potentially lacking skills in one or more of these areas. Teachers are faced with a multitude of challenges as they work to meet the needs of all their learners. It is challenging to give each child individual attention in addressing their needs while also managing the classroom and curriculum outcomes. This may result in compassion fatigue, feelings of being overwhelmed or exhausted, and a reduced ability to function as they normally would. Some identify compassion fatigue as the cost of caring.

So where do we go from here? What is the teacher’s role in supporting students impacted by trauma? Teachers are not therapists, psychologists, counselors or social workers. Many therapeutic interventions do exist, that support students in one-on-one or in small groups. These are often beneficial and necessary for some students. However, due to limited resources and access, not all students have the opportunity to engage in such programming. Additionally, as Perry2 and Bath3  have noted, research shows that the most healing for trauma-impacted children actually takes place in what some call the “other 23 hours” of the day. A supportive environment for children in all aspects of their day is essential. Equipping teachers with the understanding and strategies to provide this supportive environment can benefit both the students in need, and fortunately, also the teachers themselves.

Knowledge of trauma

Being trauma-informed requires educators to have a knowledge base about trauma itself. This does not require teachers to become experts in brain functioning or psychology, but rather a general understanding for the potential impact of chronic trauma for students they teach. This means understanding that trauma is a result of experiences that exceed an individual’s capacity to cope in healthy ways, and which render them unable to function normally. Chronic trauma may be a result of living in poverty, experiencing forms of abuse, experiencing racism, being witness to violence, experiencing significant loss, and more. While adversity is common (and often productive) throughout life, trauma results when our support systems and coping mechanisms for that adversity are not enough. Therefore, trauma is less about events themselves, but our responses to them.

When a child has experienced chronic trauma, the result may be delays in various aspects of their development. This may affect their social skills and ability to form relationships, their cognitive, physical and emotional development, their ability to regulate, learn and cope with daily demands. Trauma-impacted children walk through their world with a heightened sense of danger and can be triggered into a fear response for situations that are perceived as threatening. School is a place where students not only learn, but navigate various situations, relationships and challenges. Children who are trauma-impacted therefore often struggle in many aspects of school. 

Relationships are key

Attachment is protective factor against trauma. Many children who experience chronic trauma, however, struggle with relationships and trust. They also may not have fully experienced secure and healthy relationships in their lives. Building positive relationships with students is therefore critical, for feelings of safety, acceptance and love. Giving unconditional positive regard and showing patience are ways to build this trust. This does not mean lifting boundaries and expectations. In fact, boundaries are more important than ever. Setting and sticking to limits is essential, but done with patience and compassion. Teachers have the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time with their students throughout the school year. They can demonstrate and model positive and consistent relationships and establish new understandings of what a healthy relationship is. Child psychiatrist and trauma expert Bruce Perry talks about the power of small positive encounters and interactions for children throughout the day. “Therapeutic dosing”4 as he calls it, is a simple yet effective way for these new patterns to develop. He asserts that “just as traumatic experience can alter a life in an instant, so too can a therapeutic encounter.”5

Safety

Children impacted by trauma often are on high alert, ready to respond. Learning is virtually impossible for children who feel unsafe. Physical and emotional safety are essential in schools, as is the importance of felt safety. It is possible for trauma-impacted children to feel unsafe regardless of whether or not this is reality. Teachers are able to increase feelings of safety by creating consistent and predictable environments. This means creating a safe space where classroom community is a primary focus, and being cognizant of preparing children for transitions and change. Our responses and behaviours as teachers must also be consistent and predictable. We can recognize that some behaviours we are witness to, may be a response to feeling unsafe, versus a desire to misbehave. Behaviour is about communication. A meltdown or act of defiance, might be a fear response, or manifestations of a need. Maintaining a consistent and supportive role in responding to all behaviour with compassion and understanding, strengthens the teacher-student bond and establishes trust. We can be the calm they need, when they are not. Students will often mirror our reactions and behaviours. Keeping this thought in our minds can support us in our reactions and the way we assist students in regulating their emotions.

Teach to strengths and lacking skills

All children have strengths. Seeking them out and helping students to see them for themselves, as “inner-wealth,”6 is an important part of supporting growth and learning. As previously mentioned, students impacted by trauma may also have deficits in areas of development. Teachers can support all students by teaching to specific “lagging skills.”7 Lessons on social skills, problem solving, organization, self-regulation, friendship skills, mindfulness, conflict resolution and more, may be valuable in filling gaps in much-needed development. Social-emotional learning is a necessary component of trauma-informed classrooms. We can acknowledge and begin with student strengths that build confidence and engagement, and seek out the areas where more explicit teaching is needed.

Self-care and community support

An often-neglected focus for teachers, yet an essential component of trauma-informed practice, is self-care. As teachers, we simply cannot give what we don’t have. We must not only take care of ourselves through intentional self-care planning (exercise, leisure activities, support networks, eating well, etc.) but also be vigilant in noticing and identifying when we feel overwhelmed. There is vulnerability in reaching out to our colleagues and administrators when we require support, but it is a valuable step for our own wellness. As colleagues, we need to support one another and create a space where everyone feels empowered to reach out. This work is not easy and cannot be done in isolation.

Returning to work after months of remoteness may bring new feelings of anxiety and fear, or heightened preexisting mental health issues. Let us name it. We must be patient with ourselves and check on our colleagues. Let’s debrief our days and take a breath. We are not alone, and the load should not be solely ours to bear. Focusing on strong working relationships and a team approach will be crucial. As teachers, we need to open our classroom doors and support one another. The feeling of pressure on the shoulders of the classroom teachers alone, increases the risk of burnout and fatigue. “Our” students are also part of the whole school community and the community beyond the school. We benefit from creating partnerships outside of the school, building relationships with parents and community members and collectively wrapping our arms around our students and ourselves. 

TEACHERS’ DAYs are often a whirlwind. Decision-making is happening constantly, and our attention is split in many different directions. Teachers don’t need more on their plates. We do, however, benefit from new knowledge for making teaching and learning more successful. Fortunately, trauma-informed strategies, such as those listed above, are good teaching practices for all students – and many are already happening all through Canadian schools. If we keep relationships at the centre and have more understanding for our students through a knowledge of the pervasive impact of chronic traumatic experiences, we will be making a difference. We will be contributing to the supportive environment that children require, to reach their full potential. With this understanding, teachers too, can feel the positive impact of a trauma-informed classroom and school. Caring doesn’t always have to come at significant cost, but instead, can provide meaningful and effective experiences that leave teachers feeling more empowered and connected.

As we transition into our post-COVID lives (whenever “post” will be), it is important to recognize how this virus may have impacted the lives of our students, and our own. We must also keep in mind that well before COVID 19, some of our students have struggled with trauma and adversity that will continue to impact their lives and learning. Our students who were accessing counseling or psychological services prior to school closures, and making gains, may experience setbacks. We may feel that impact throughout our schools. During these last devastating months, this virus has certainly opened the eyes of many to various societal inequities, in addition to forms of trauma. Those issues, however, were always and will always be present in the lives of many of our students. This unprecedented event has also taught us how precious life and time truly are. The entire world seemed to stand still at moments, causing many of us to reflect upon our jobs, roles, purpose and values. I was certainly one of them. It reminded me of how strongly I believe in our nations’ teachers and our ability to care beyond the curriculum.

With small doses of kindness, intentional teaching, and a heightened awareness of trauma’s impact, we can add to the environment needed for all to heal and grow. Our students are worth it, and so are we. 

 Notes

  1. M. Blaustein and K. Kinniburgh, Treating Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents:  How to foster resilience through attachment, self-regulation, and competency (New York, NY: The Guildford Press, 2010).
  2. B. Perry and M. Szalavitz, The Boy who Was Raised by a Dog: And other stories from a psychiatrist’s notebook – what traumatized children can teach us about loss, love and healing, second edition (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2017). 
  3. Howard Bath, “The Three Pillars of Traumawise Care: Healing in the other 23 hours,” Reclaiming Children and Youth Journal, No. 4 (2015): 5-11.
  4. Perry, The Boy who Was Raised by a Dog, 307.
  5. Perry, The Boy who Was Raised by a Dog, 308.
  6. D. Zacharian, L. Alvarez-Ortiz, and J. Haynes, Teaching to Strengths: Supporting students living with trauma, violence and chronic stress (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2017).
  7. Ross Greene, Lost at School: Why our kids with behavioural challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them (New York, NY: Scribner, 2014).

PHOTO: ISTOCK

Meet the Expert(s)

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Laura Leslie

Teacher (Halifax Regional Centre for Education), Doctoral Student (St. FX University)

Laura Leslie is a teacher in the Halifax Regional Centre for Education and holds a Master's of Education in Counselling. She is currently a PhD candidate at St. Francis Xavier University (Antigonish, N.S.), studying trauma-informed practice in schools.

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