Responding to Trauma in Students—and Yourself

By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis,

Responding to Trauma in Students—and Yourself

When you were a kid, you were a kid. Now, you are an adult . . . but you were still that kid once. Both kids and adults experience trauma, and sometimes traumatic experiences from childhood continue to impact us in adulthood. In many cases, adults and children have a shared experience in which they both suffer from varied bodily reactions to the same trauma. During this pandemic, for example, we are experiencing the same large-scale trauma. Yet this one trauma has impacted everyone differently while flowing into the various parts of each individual’s life.

Here is a lesson you can use to help staff increase their methods of self-care and teach them about trauma. You can also use this lesson with students to help them develop their own trauma responses!

Lesson Notes on Trauma Response

Lay out the carpet by first explaining what trauma is. Broad mental health concepts can often feel overwhelming to someone who does not typically work in that wheelhouse. Whether you are working with staff or students, make sure your participants know that trauma is when someone experiences something scary, sad, or shocking. When the heart and head of that person are having a tough time absorbing what happened, their memory gets stuck on the tough experience.

We do not want to stop at teaching staff and students what trauma is.  Extending mental health knowledge will bring a richness to a person’s everyday life. A comprehensive lesson might cover identifying possible sources of trauma, listing possible feelings and reactions trauma might cause, and teaching a couple of relaxation techniques.

Start off by having your learners think of a time when they experienced something traumatic themselves. Ask them questions that push a little further, such as, “What was it like in the moment? What was it like after the moment?”

Building a Community That Cares

The next activity draws on those personal experiences using cooperative learning techniques to build a community of caring participants. Begin by having everyone take out a piece of paper. Then have them write at the top of the paper a feeling, emotion, or reaction they felt when they experienced the traumatic event they thought about in the first activity. Answers might include, among others:

  • sadness
  • fear
  • numbness
  • difficulty sleeping
  • lack of interest in hobbies or friends
  • difficulty focusing on things
  • racing thoughts
  • loss of appetite

Next, have the participants get into groups of five. They will pass their papers to their right and read the response on the paper they receive. If they agree, they should write “Yes, and . . .” and then add their own feeling or reaction from their personal experience of trauma. If not, they can write “No, but . . .” and then add their response. It is really important that participants know that there is no right or wrong answer because everyone experiences trauma differently. In order to see this diversity in trauma response, have the group continue passing the papers around the circle until each list has a response from each person in the group and everyone receives their own paper back. The groups can even return to a larger group to discuss what differences and patterns they notice in the lists.

Even if you are meeting digitally, this activity can still be done auditorily. You can get high tech if you are on Zoom and have access to features such as breakout rooms, or you can have a volunteer start the process by reading their trauma response and asking others to chime in with their “Yes, and/No, but . . .” responses. The volunteer acts as the scribe and shows the list on their screen (leaving it up) once they have collected three to five additions. As each person volunteers, the video boxes will be filled with lists.

Taming the Response

The second activity of this lesson helps participants learn some relaxation techniques that might be useful to someone who has experienced trauma or stress. Label the four corners of the room and have the groups of five rotate through them. At each station, ask that participants read the description of the technique together and practice it individually.

The four corners are:

  1. 4×4 Deep Breathing: Breathe in through your nose deeply for four counts (seconds), hold that breath for four counts, breathe it out through your mouth for four counts, and hold for four counts. Try doing this two or three times.
  2. Guided Muscle Relaxation: Picture your body and scan down from the top of your head through your toes, relaxing the muscles as you mentally pass each. Take time and care to relax even those areas you did not know were tense, such as your tongue, your ears, and so on.
  3. Yogic Stretching: Expand your muscles with your breath. Decide what muscle group you would like to focus on (arms, stomach, back, feet) and feel the muscles in that group stretch slightly as you breathe in and rest slowly as you breathe out. Repeat as many breaths as you would like.
  4. Relaxed Visualization: Think about a place where you are completely relaxed (preferably one that is not technology related) or a place where you think you would be relaxed. Where are you? What are you smelling or hearing? Are your eyes closed, or do you see something? Breathe in deeply and think about how you feel in this relaxing place each time you exhale. Repeat as many breaths as you would like.

I’m relaxed just writing that list! These are things people can do, alone or together, aloud or quietly, and with eyes opened or closed, when they feel trauma responses in their bodies. In a stressful meeting? Waiting for something big to happen in your life? Need a breather in an intense situation? These are all things you can do without anyone even knowing!

Again, this activity is easily adaptable for virtual learning. The whole group can try out these experiences on their own on video chat or in their individual learning spaces. Many relaxation exercises need no props; mindfulness uses the power of the body, head, and heart. If they’re working alone, you can have participants submit descriptions of their experiences with the techniques.

Reflecting on Self-Care

No good social and emotional lesson is complete without a little full-circle thinking. Using the same collaborative technique you used with the list of trauma responses, have participants reflect on their experience practicing the relaxation techniques. Using the other side of their papers from before, have them write one feeling or reaction they had when using the relaxation techniques or which technique they liked best. As before, ask them to pass their papers to the right and add to their neighbors’ lists by writing “Yes, and . . .” or “No, but . . .” with their own personal reflection on the relaxation experience.

Once everyone has their own paper back, they can reflect on the new list and have a group discussion about the difference between the two lists and how the relaxation techniques might be helpful when someone feels their body is responding to a traumatic experience or stressor (current or past).

Again, this activity can be completed in a whole-group video-conferencing method easily (see process description above). If you are not able to meet in person or via video chat, there are still ways to make this activity interactive, such as by using email and messaging trains. Provide each person with a list of three to five email addresses and ask them to send an email with their reaction to the first person on their list. When they receive new emails with reactions, they copy the list of reactions, add their own, and send it to the next person. If you have access to a discussion board platform, have each student create a thread, and tell the other students to respond to three to five of their peers’ threads.


To extend this experience, you can even have participants reflect on the content by journaling (another great relaxation tool!) about pertinent questions that round out what they have learned, such as:

  • How might relaxation techniques help a body that is responding to trauma?
  • What traumas have other people in the group (or class) experienced? Were there some people who did not share their trauma?
  • Can you always tell if someone is experiencing trauma?
  • How do you think you might adjust how you view behaviors and communicate with others?


Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student TraumaStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

Responding to Student TraumaStephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.

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2 Responses to Responding to Trauma in Students—and Yourself

  1. Maura Ricardi says:

    As a former Social Worker with DCF, and now a School Adjustment Counselor, my trauma informed lens is always in focus knowing what home life looks like for some of our students. Covid has brought this to a different level and our educators need MORE resources to be able to support their students. School Counselors are spread thin and I wish I had more time to focus on this topic. This book, and the suggestion of bringing it to a PLC, is GENIUS and I would be honored to do so!

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