How Trauma Impacts Students’ Motivation

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

How Trauma Impacts Students’ MotivationMy daughter is nineteen years old and deep in the throes of individuation. She has always been one of those kids that we would call a self-starter, but is now also past the age of wanting to hear her mother’s approval, instead opting for the voice in her own head. Living independently has strengthened this resolve and helped her find other measures to judge success. In fact, in the later years of her high school experience, she told me that my unconditional encouragement and positive reinforcement were “super-annoying and unnecessary.”

Pulling away from parents is a hallmark of late adolescence. I started to notice around midsummer last year, however, that something had shifted between my daughter and me. She started to call and text me as if she were back in middle school. She was asking me for advice, asking what I thought about things, and if what she was doing was okay. She was seeking validation and assurance from the adults around her again, and I struggled to figure out if I was just being tested. It turns out that she really was looking for my validation!

Anyone who has had a teenager is familiar with the parental paranoia I experienced. We are fairly certain that when our teen is nice to us, something is up. I thought this was all really interesting and started to wonder what was going on.

Shifting Needs

I have seen a similar pattern arise at school with my students. In the hallway, my sixth graders have been super-sweet and incredibly appreciative of every bit of rapport that I create with them. They are always a delight, but typically by this point in the school year, they are figuring out how to command their school and life, causing some unintentional negative reactions as they pivot through their discoveries.

Something is different about this year. Teachers are also reporting that their students are reaching out to them and engaging in the classroom differently than they have ever seen. Both online and in person, students are creating a new type of relationship in their schools. They are offering vulnerability and accepting help on a different level.

All these stark changes inspired me to do a little research on the internalization and externalization of emotions and motivations. Digging deeper with the additional knowledge of what our kids have been through this year, I started to whittle down to information that also addressed changes that occur with trauma response. What is going on in this COVID-19 era that is causing our students and our children to need more reassurance from outside themselves? What is happening to the voice inside them as they look around them to see a world that is struggling?

As I looked for answers to my this mystery, I found an amazing study done by Winnie Chan at San Francisco State University in the early 2000s. In it she discusses complex trauma and its role in the intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation of children. The difference of these two types of motivation is kind of like the developmental shift in childhood, when a child starts to avoid stealing a cookie out of the cookie jar because they know that stealing just isn’t right, instead of avoiding it because they don’t want to get in trouble.

  • Intrinsic motivation is internally fueled motivation, or drive that occurs from inside a person, such as when a student does homework so they can feel the personal satisfaction of getting a good grade and feeling accomplished.
  • External motivation is feeling satisfaction and inspiration as a result of responses from people outside themselves, such as a student doing well on a test so their teacher thinks they’re smart.

Though the study was focused on complex trauma (trauma that occurs over time, beginning in childhood), can we really measure the unique, unprecedented, and ongoing trauma that our children are currently experiencing? What I do know is that the article seemed to describe the emotion-based behavior I was seeing in my daughter and my students. A huge lightbulb lit in my head, and I realized that my daughter was reaching out as a result of recent traumas that caused her to need affirmation from me. The voice in her own head was feeling a bit run-down, so she was turning to older methods of reassurance.

Giving the Kids What They Need

Similarly, at work, our students are under an incredible amount of stress. These crises have wreaked havoc on our lives, and there seems to have been a bit of an emotional reset. It is certainly possible that our students are experiencing a change in the sources of their motivation as a result of the pandemic, school shutdowns, social unrest, and the many barriers that these large-scale traumatic events have caused. Naturally, the next question is, how do we respond to this, and is there a way to harness this generational glitch and use it to our advantage?

Using the Chan article as a starting point, I think the best way to help our students combat stress-induced motivation and emotion-based behaviors would be to give them more externalized prompting, support, and encouragement! Here are some ways to do that:

  • Ramp up professional development to give staff a toolbox of positive-reinforcement language they can use in their classrooms.
  • Check out your PBIS stockpiles and go heavy on the Tier 1 interventions so expectations are well laid out and there are multiple pathways to receiving positive reinforcement.
  • Keep a close eye on caseloads and intentionally recall personal things you remember about students, so they can feel your interest in them.
  • Surprise students with tokens of appreciation (personalized postcards, stickers, and the like) so they can begin to reenter a world where surprises are positive.
  • Don’t worry too much about precise age recommendations for these strategies, as many students will find comfort in tactics that are nostalgic reminders of being younger and having fewer complex stressors.
  • Focus on school culture and fun ways for kids to participate in their school community to bring a sense of ease to school life.


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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