Looking for ways to support students dealing with trauma?

Three experts weigh in with advice on how to start today


Looking for ways to support students dealing with trauma?

Three experts weigh in with advice on how to start today

By Jesse Mintz

Students in pain can’t learn, develop healthy relationships or grow. But teachers can change that.

There is trauma in every community across the country. That pain is making its way into classrooms. The 2018 National Survey of Children’s Health estimates that half of all students have gone through some type of profound negative experience. From facing abuse or neglect to exposure to violence and substance abuse, trauma is affecting how young people learn, develop and relate to each other. Schools, though, can be part of the healing.

The role of teachers has always been about more than passing on academic knowledge. Children spend 180 days in school every year—often more waking hours with teachers than their families.

Teachers are in a unique position to provide young people with the regular guidance and support they need to thrive. Overburdened and under-resourced, teachers are already asked to do more with less to address problems outside of the classroom. Far from an add-on, though, experts suggest addressing trauma as the first step to ensuring students feel safe and supported. Only then can they begin to learn and grow.

Fortunately, there are steps every teacher can take to transform their classroom with a trauma-informed approach. Through programs like WE Teachers, a curriculum-based initiative created with Mental Health America and supported by Walgreens, educators have free access to evidence-based resources to help them tackle pressing issues facing schools today, including how to support students coping with trauma.

Below, WE speaks to experts on the subject of trauma and how teachers can turn their classroom into a place of healing.

What is the first step all teachers can take to help students dealing with trauma?

Dr. Brenda Cassellius | Superintendent of Boston Public Schools

“The first thing teachers can do is shift their mindset and understand that the children they have all bring assets. Their challenge is to find that strength and help the child work from that strength. Set high expectations. It’s not a question of feeling sorry for the child, but of providing the type of support they need to succeed within the classroom. That’s the number-one thing: it’s a mindset. The art of educating a child is not giving them content and having them score well on a standardized test; it’s helping them to be a better human, providing them the skills they need to grow. It’s a mindset, first.”

Dr. David O’Malley | Professor, School of Social Work, Bridgewater State University

“When we think about the education system from the 30,000-foot perspective, one of the most important questions is: how do we involve parents? That can be through individual relationships, like in parent-teacher conferences, or through school-wide efforts. We need to do a better job of introducing the idea of trauma to parents. Trauma doesn’t just affect individual students—it affects the entire environment. If people are unable to understand the nature of trauma and how it affects systems, this is a dangerous blind spot. Teachers talking with parents can help them see this as a health issue the same way they’d see asbestos in a building as a health issue. They are both environmental issues. Only with that understanding will parents begin to see trauma-informed classrooms as in the best interest of their child, even if they haven’t experienced trauma directly … because the child at the next desk may have. When parents begin to understand that, we’ll find the entire community more open-minded and compassionate to reorienting our education system. Then, administrators and policy makers will begin hearing about it; they’ll know parents are concerned. It’s a community-organizing step we can take.”

Maureen Dockendorf | Superintendent of Literacy and Numeracy, British Columbia Ministry of Education

“We need to foster a sense of belonging in the classroom. That’s the heart of it. The beginning has to be a focus on relationships and creating caring environments … nothing else you do as a teacher will make any difference with the kids—not teaching empathy, gratitude, compassion, nothing—if students don’t first feel a trusting relationship. Focus on creating a sense of community in the classroom. Pay attention to relationships. Try and pick up new skills in social and emotional learning. Stand at the door and greet every child by name as they come in. That may sound like nothing, but we have the research to back up the impact it can make. When the teacher greets kids every morning by name, when they slow down and stop rushing to cover curriculum, when they create a sense of belonging, when they believe that every student comes with gifts to offer, it change the nature of the classroom.”