By Phil Slade and Roshelle Weir
We all face some form of trauma in our lives, some sort of psychological stressor that we need to overcome. As humans, we actually need a level of trauma, as it is through dealing with and resolving issues that spur our moral development. However, when the trauma is too extreme for us to handle, or we don’t have the psychological tools with which to deal with it, severe and persistent negative impacts can result across the entire lifespan of an individual. In particular, we see school students who have experienced trauma struggle with academic and social success. As educators, it is critical to understand the impact trauma can have and know what to do to help ourselves and our students thrive.
As mentioned in the introduction, trauma can take many forms, such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect or psychological bullying, natural disasters, witnessing violence, or experiencing extreme and sudden loss. Trauma can impact mental, physical, and emotional health, leading to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, and poor academic performance. So what can we do about it? Below are some of the most effective strategies for supporting students dealing with trauma:
1. Create a Safe and Supportive Environment for everyone
Establish clear rules and expectations for behaviour, providing opportunities for students to connect with each other, and be consciously attentive to the needs of individual students. Be careful not to single students out who might be in need, and attention is often embarrassing. Create the same boundaries for everyone and allow the group to reinforce the psychologically safe environment.
Ensuring that the classroom is well-lit, organised, and free of hazards not only makes it physically safe, it also signals a safe, predictable environment to students. Also, be mindful of your own behaviour and interactions with students, avoiding actions that could be interpreted as threatening or intimidating.
2. Build Positive Relationships
It seems obvious, but we often underestimate the importance of building positive relationships with students for supporting students dealing with trauma. This can be particularly hard when the student's behaviour can be aggressive or somewhat anti-social, or there seems to be no time in the day. The important thing is to try as much as possible to make the student feel heard, even in the chaos and time pressure of the classroom. When students feel seen, heard, and valued by their teachers, they are more likely to feel safe and secure in the classroom, which can help them better manage the effects of trauma.
Using tools like Switch4Schools check-ins create a safe digital space for students to communicate how they are feeling and ask for help when they need it.
3. Be Mindful of Triggers
Significant events that lead to trauma create specific triggers that can cause people to become anxious or upset. Educators should be mindful of these triggers and take steps to avoid them where possible. For example, a student who has experienced a devastating natural disaster may become anxious during a thunderstorm. In this case, the teacher could take steps to create a calming environment, such as allowing the student to sit in a quiet area of the classroom or move close to the teacher's desk. Creating a safe and supportive learning environment also develops positive mental triggers, which can counter the fear. This may include movement or physical activity, using calming techniques like deep breathing or mindfulness exercises, and offering students choices and opportunities for self-directed learning.
4. Encourage Self-Care and Self-regulation
Encouraging self-care and self-regulation is an important part of supporting students dealing with trauma. It’s one thing to feel safe when in your classroom, but real progress is made when students can create and maintain their own psychological health and safety. This can involve teaching students switches like box breathing or any of the anxiety or scared switches (www.switch4schools.com.au), providing opportunities for physical activity or creative expression, or simply modeling self-care practices like taking breaks or setting boundaries.
Teachers can also encourage self-care by helping students develop a positive self-image, promoting healthy lifestyle habits, and teaching them to identify and manage their emotions.
5. Connect Students with Resources
As educators, we cannot do everything ourselves. It is important to connect students dealing with trauma with appropriate resources and support services. This might include leveraging the extensive library of (free) resources available via the Switch4Schools program, counseling services, community resources, or support groups for children who have experienced trauma.
Teachers can also work with parents or caregivers to ensure that students are receiving the necessary support outside of the classroom, and can provide guidance and resources to help families cope with the effects of trauma.
6. Practice Self-Care
Finally, it is important for all of us to practice self-care when supporting others dealing with trauma. Caring for others can be emotionally and mentally taxing, and we must take care of ourselves in order to continue to provide effective support. By prioritising self-care, we can better support the needs of our students and create a positive and supportive classroom environment.