Traumatic events — the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, mass shootings, migrant transition shock, natural disasters, reports of neglect and abuse — seem to constantly make top news headlines these days. Students across our nation are affected by trauma every day. This trauma can have deep and lasting impacts on students’ core beliefs about others, their environment, and themselves.
Now more than ever, schools must focus on ensuring safe, supportive learning environments. There are many ways social and emotional learning (SEL) can help students who suffer from trauma. Take action by focusing on these three core social and emotional competencies that can support trauma-informed practices.
Relationship skills are critical to students’ success. The ability to maintain healthy and rewarding relationships depends on clear communication, listening, cooperating with others, standing up to peer pressure, and seeking and offering help when needed.
Research shows that traumatic incidents can affect students’ learning, behavior, and relationships with teachers and peers. Students who’ve experienced trauma may have difficulty focusing and processing new information, show more signs of aggression and bullying, find it difficult to trust others, and view authority figures with suspicion.
Take Action: Implement restorative practices to help students establish, develop, and restore caring, nurturing relationships. Promote positive and healthy peer-to-peer relationships by giving students plenty of opportunities to practice teamwork and collaboration. Encourage adults to foster strong educator-to-peer relationships by sharing how they themselves have overcome a traumatic or stressful situation.
Self-awareness helps students identify their emotions and understand how their thoughts and values impact their behavior. A well-grounded self-awareness relies on confidence and self-efficacy.
Students suffering from trauma deal with strong emotions. When students experience a traumatic event, they commonly go through a brief period of anxiety and depression. Research shows that students with a growth mindset are more likely to maintain a sense of control over their lives. Students are able to recognize that the volatile period after a traumatic event is a temporary state, and a growth mindset equips them with tools to bounce back.
Take Action: Nurture growth mindsets so students are able to move past depression. Provide opportunities for students to talk through their thoughts, feelings, values, and emotions so they are able to process their feelings in a constructive way.
Self-management helps students regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behavior. It also helps students manage stress and control impulses.
There is evidence that repeated traumatic experiences can cause students to live in a “constant state of emergency.” Our normal “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” responses to stressful situations result in stress hormones being released in the brain. Trauma can make this response dangerous and can lead to an over-active stress system.
Take Action: There are many ways to help students manage their stress and emotions. Engage them in journaling activities, deep-breathing exercises, role-playing, and relaxation techniques. Promote a healthy diet and exercise to relieve stress. And, most importantly, encourage students to seek help if they feel their stress or negative emotions are becoming unmanageable.
Schools can tap into SEL to help students work through trauma. Teaching students skills to build strong relationships, understand and manage their emotions, and find healthy ways to alleviate stress can help them work through pain and suffering and go on to lead healthy, happy lives.