How to support your student through trauma

Trauma affects the way students learn, behave and handle stress. But you can help them. This is what you need to know.


How to support your student through trauma

Trauma affects the way students learn, behave and handle stress. But you can help them. This is what you need to know.

By Jesse Mintz

When a student disrupts class, teachers sometimes respond with calm or discipline—but experts say the best approach is to ask why.

Why is the student behaving this way? What has happened in their life that’s led them to feel and act like this?

The cause of students’ anger, frustration, resentment and disengagement likely runs deeper than whatever seemed to set them off in the classroom. It’s often rooted in pain the student is feeling but hasn’t made sense of, explains Jessica Kennedy of Mental Health America, the country’s leading non-profit addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting the well-being of all Americans.

Kennedy explains that understanding and compassion toward students is at the core of a trauma-informed approach that experts say is needed to address the pain and mental health issues burdening students.

There is trauma in every school and in every classroom. According to the 2018 National Survey of Children’s Health, nearly half of children have experienced at least one type of serious trauma. Social workers have long known that these children are at higher risk of negative health outcomes, and now researchers have found that exposure to trauma, stress, fear and anxiety in childhood can have lifelong consequences, disrupting the very architecture of the brain.

That doesn’t mean students who’ve experienced trauma can’t learn, Kennedy says, just that teachers need a different approach in order to reach them.

Students are coming to class having experienced or witnessed violence, poverty, abuse or neglect. That’s why Mental Health America worked with WE and Walgreens to create WE Teachers, which provides free evidence-based resources so teachers can help address these issues in their classrooms. Drawing on the latest research on at-risk youth populations, social and emotional learning, and school-based mental health services, these tools will help teachers make an impact on every student.

“We have the science, we have the resources, but also have a population of young people who are in pain,” reflects Kennedy. “If you want to do something tomorrow in the classroom to make a difference, there’s WE Teachers.” In the meantime, here’s what the experts say you need to know about trauma to help your students thrive.

What kind of trauma do your students experience?

First, a definition. Trauma is the response we have to experiencing something awful in life. It can result from an event, like abuse or sexual violence, witnessing a car crash or surviving a natural disaster, or from long-term systemic issues, such as persistent poverty and hunger, neglect, addiction in the home, or bullying in school. Trauma takes many forms and no two people experience its impact in the same way.

Now, for the statistics. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than six in 10 children in the U.S. are exposed to violence every year. For those who will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, there is a 50 percent chance it will manifest before they reach 14.

The impact is clear, says Kennedy: “Our surveys and data point to increasing suicide rates, increasing depression and anxiety rates, increasing mood issues in increasingly younger students.”

The science behind how trauma impacts a student’s brain

Recent studies from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, Duke University’s Department of Psychology and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have shed light on the impact of persistent stress, fear and anxiety on the developing brain. Trauma can flood young people’s brains with cortisol and adrenaline at a time when they are particularly susceptible to hormonal changes. This, in turn, can limit memory and learning, and affect the way children regulate emotions. Here’s how:

1. Fight or flight

When cortisol and adrenaline flow through the brain, the flight or fight response follows. In children, these powerful hormones can prime the brain to revert to a survival mode mindset. This explains why seemingly innocuous events—a loud bang or a teacher asking a student to put their cell phone away—elicit such powerful responses in some young people. The incident triggers a student’s memory of trauma and their brain immediately kicks into a heightened stress state, causing them to lash out or shut down.

What it looks like at school: Disruptive, defiant or aggressive behavior on one end of the spectrum; at the other, isolating behavior fed by a student’s fear and mistrust.

2. Memory and learning

Extended exposure to trauma can rewire children’s brains to prioritize survival above learning and relationships. Imagine competing concerts: one with calming classical music, the other with raucous heavy metal. The louder the heavy metal becomes, the harder it is to hear the classical. This is what happens when fear, stress and anxiety gain a foothold, eventually damaging the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, the seats of learning and higher reasoning.

What it looks like at school: Drop in performance, absentmindedness, inability to focus.

3. Emotional control

With stress hormones dominating, children can have trouble calming themselves and regulating their emotions. In this heightened state, their survival instinct can lead to the distrust of others, sadness, fear and, eventually, more long-term mental health challenges, including depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.

What it looks like at school: Rapidly deteriorating relationships with peer group.

What else to look for in your classroom?

Trauma manifests differently in everyone, but there are warning signs that could hint at something underlying your student’s actions. These include:

  • Not wanting to go home
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Fatigue in class because of lack of sleep
  • Sexual knowledge or behavior that is inappropriate for a child of that age

What you can do

First, get involved with WE Teachers. The resources and curriculum are free and evidence-based. They will help you support your students and confront some of the most pressing issues in your classroom, from trauma to mental health and bullying. You’ll also get access to virtual training sessions and join a network of like-minded, dedicated educators.
And second, make a paradigm shift in your classroom. “Teachers are already doing so much to make a difference in the lives of students,” says Kennedy. “If we shift the framework”—if teachers ask what has happened in students’ lives to make them feel and act the way they do—“it’s an opportunity to connect and intervene, to help heal pain.”

This is the second in a series about WE Teachers and how you can bring a trauma-informed approach into your classroom. Look for more articles for additional tips from fellow teachers and insight from experts. And become a WE Teacher to access free resources and modules.