A recent study conducted by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) suggests that roughly 25% of American children will experience at least one traumatic event by the age of 16. With disturbing events such as a natural disaster and the death or loss of a loved one, trauma cannot always be prevented. However, how schools help students respond and deal with traumatic events is something you have a little more control over.
There are many resources and materials out there to help educators, school staff, and administrators understand and respond to the specific needs of traumatized children. Perhaps one of the best tools a school can implement, however, is Trauma-Informed Education (TIE) for all school staff members.
So what exactly is Trauma-Informed Education? To put it simply, it is a type of education that provides school staff with the knowledge and tools they need to help students manage trauma.
Common traumatic situation include, but are not limited to:
- Physical and emotional abuse
- Bullying: both in person and cyber bullying
- Community violence and/or instability
- Death or loss of loved ones
- Natural disasters
But, identifying that a student is grieving is just the first step. Not all trauma should be treated the same way and therefore, school staff needs to be educated on the ways they can help students suffering from various traumatic events. According to the NCTSN, there are many things that can be done to help a traumatized child:
Maintain Usual Routines
Routines create a sense of control for most people. When a person is going through the day in a routine fashion, they know what to expect… they can prepare themselves for each step proactively. After a traumatic event, things can seem chaotic and like they are spinning out of control so maintaining an established routine can help a traumatized child take back some of that control.
Increase Support and Provide a Safe Space
A particularly important takeaway from the Trauma-Informed Education is how to create a “safe space” at your school for students to come and discuss their worries. Many schools identify the Counseling Office as their safe space, but what if a school doesn’t have one? A “safe space” is simply a place where children should know that regardless of what they say, they will not be judged or treated as less than. Often times, after a traumatic event, students can be prone to isolation and guilt, resulting in a lack of desire to speak openly about what happened. So providing a nurturing environment where a Trauma-Informed staff member can guide the conversation and let the child know that they are being heard is very important.
Set Clear, Firm Boundaries
A common reaction to trauma is inappropriate behavior and outbursts. Because all of that emotion is held in, eventually it has to come out, and when it does, it’s not always in the healthiest of ways. NCTSN suggests that in the event of such an outburst, it’s important to let the student know that their inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. However, it might be more effective to establish logical consequences instead of punitive ones.
Be Aware of Other Children’s Reactions to Traumatized Children
There are 2 sides to this. On one side, it's necessary to shield the traumatized student from classmates. But, on the other side of that, it’s also important to protect classmates from the details of the child’s trauma... especially in situations of physical and emotional violence where details can be graphic and intrusive. Dealing with classmates being overly curious about what happened can lead the child to feel like they are reliving the painful event over and over again, resulting in continued trauma.
Understand That Re-enacting is a Form of Coping
In the same breath we talk about not allowing classmates to cause the traumatized student to relive their trauma, we must also recognize that often times, this is what the child is already doing. By re-enacting whatever distressed them, they are trying to make sense of what happened. They haven’t had the chance to develop the cognitive skills to understand people’s motivations yet so they have to be taught how to cope. Educators must resist the student’s efforts to draw them into the negative repetition of trauma while also helping them navigate it. For instance, some children will provoke teachers in order to replay abusive situations at home. In such an event, maybe sending the student to the guidance counselor would be the most beneficial thing to do.
Every child and how they react to trauma is different, but by recognizing some of the common identifiers and understanding different methods of handling those situations can really make a difference. For more resources and training opportunities, please visit the NCTSN website!