How Trauma Impacts Learning

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

How Trauma Impacts Learning

Traumatic experiences are all-consuming. When people experience trauma, their minds and bodies replay the emotions felt in that moment over and over again. All other processes fall to the wayside, and there is no space for restful sleep, organization, planning, foresight, and concentration.

As humans, we focus best when we feel assurance: assurance that things will work out, assurance that we will not regret our decisions, assurance that we are safe. When children experience a traumatic event, they are thrown out of balance and they are threatened by the absence of stability; the future’s unpredictability is scary. As their minds remain concentrated on heightened emotions, they are diverted from the content they should be learning in class.

There are so many ways that this loss of attention can affect a person’s daily living experience. Adults know how tough it is to experience something difficult over the weekend and then have to get up and be depended upon on Monday morning at work. With lack of sleep and emotional exhaustion, the workday will likely be a day to isolate from others and lay low. Burdened thoughts of whether things have changed during the day and obsessive checking for personal calls might make the day a wash and call for a half-day to try to work things through. When attention is elsewhere, productivity suffers.

For students, being in school is their job. When distressed, children will worry and obsess in a similar manner as adults. They feel side-tracked, they are worried, and they are trying to make sense of what happened. As they turn over their thoughts all day, they are not eating or sleeping and they avoid supportive people. These behaviors can then begin to cycle and snowball until the child feels completely out of sync with themself and the trauma response takes over.

Healing Qualities of a School

How do school staff help a student who is having a difficult time focusing in class as a result of their mind’s and heart’s trauma response? We cannot offer therapeutic services, make pain go away, or excuse daily requirements for academics. So, what can we do, and how do we fit this into our new worlds of in-person, blended, and virtual learning?

I believe that school can be a healing place. A school environment that is orderly, student-centered, and mindful of the benefits of social and emotional learning (SEL) can function as a restorative setting in addition to its normal scholastic operations. If intentionally practiced, implements in the school’s environment can safeguard students’ regulatory tools so that students are learning how best to control their emotions and responses without even realizing it.

During the traumatic COVID-19 pandemic, we are also taking on another new challenge: the mere physicality of students may be different from anything we are familiar with. It has certainly stretched me as I have worked on mapping out what scaffolding we can use in the brick-and-mortar school and what needs there are for the virtual-learning environment. The educational field is in a collective creative crunch to get our jobs done in this new world!

Some environmental and widespread strategies for trauma response just need to be tweaked, and others need to be replaced or begun anew. At the end of the day, I try to focus on providing students engagement and supportive SEL practices. If I can manifest a distinct and concrete focal point, I can then alter as needed for the various changes we have seen and will likely continue to experience.

Structure in the Chaos

Traumatic situations that students experience often make life seem scary, unpredictable, and chaotic. When the educational environment is well-structured, students will feel more secure to venture outside their thoughts with no surprises. If expectations and scheduling are as predictable as possible, consistency can be found throughout the hallways and classrooms. When environmental factors in schools are less chaotic, structures and plans are reiterated throughout the students’ interactions and students will likely feel more secure.

Face-to-Face

  • Ensure rules and expectations are posted in classrooms and are consistent in other classes.
  • Allow students, as a class or individually, to set mini-goals in the classroom instead of larger objectives so that they can feel they are on the right track.
  • Offer assurance by repeating daily schedules and plans to the class: at the beginning of the day, before moving to another task, and in a culminating daily review (even, or perhaps especially, if the students are with you for the whole day).

Virtual

  • Use virtual platforms consistently between classrooms and have the same schoolwide setup for all classes and lessons.
  • Try to find ways to have mini one-on-one conferences with students for mini-goal-setting, such as using breakout features on your virtual learning platform or scheduling video minute meetings during asynchronous times.
  • Discuss daily virtual schedules with students, and allow them to talk about other classes to replicate the binding, fluid nature of the brick-and-mortar school day.

Opportunities for Control

A student who has experienced a trauma may feel the weight of the belief that had they been in control, the event may not have happened. Though untrue, this belief can create feelings of helplessness and cause students to grasp at elements in their lives that they can control. We know that negative and unhealthy methods of finding control may come in the form of eating disorders, substance use, and self-injurious behaviors. We can help by offering students small opportunities to control their days so that they can again feel agency and empowerment over their own lives.

Face-to-Face

  • Allow students to vote on brain breaks.
  • Assign students a portion of content and ask that they create assessments and projects.
  • Ask students if they would like some time to have an open conversation about a topic of their choice.

Virtual

  • Use choice boards for assignments, with a few choices but not so many as to be overwhelming.
  • Have one-on-one meetings with students while they work on passion projects of their choosing.
  • Have students choose content to teach the class, and allow for a detailed lesson plan if the student does not prefer to present to the class.

Building the Social and Emotional Toolbox

Having students in a “learning environment” is important for raising healthy-minded students. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the ticket for helping students who have experienced trauma heal over time. SEL also teaches students how to be empowered by adversities they have been through instead of harvesting a victimhood that could immobilize their future happiness.

Face-to-Face

  • Have mindful-moment breaks in class for students to practice meditation and calming techniques.
  • Use specific and inspirational videos in your morning announcements to include positivity and confidence-building.
  • Point out positive peer interactions and celebrate them with students.

Virtual

  • Assign students mindfulness and mediation practices for homework or asynchronous time, and ask that they submit journal entries about their experiences.
  • Provide easy-to-follow resources about strengthening inner compassion.
  • Take time is taken to learn names and acknowledge each student’s strengths and individual personality.

Trauma in the Lives of Students

Whether or not young people have any control over traumatic situations and problematic home and family circumstances, they will likely feel the pressure of these dilemmas on their shoulders. In their world, the death of a family member, the safety of a sibling, or the domestic violence they witness is their responsibility to remedy, even though their age dictates that they cannot (nor should they). They are in an impossible predicament.

By enveloping our young people in a daily environment that is predictable and that provides opportunities for them to be in control, we help our students find safe harbor. The supportive nature of this security can then help strengthen and sustain the SEL that counselors, teachers, and schools breathe into content lessons. With a little bit of planning (and maybe some freshly baked brownies for stakeholder buy-in!), schools can help ease the pain of students who have experienced trauma.

 

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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