3 Lessons for Understanding and Addressing Student Trauma
Expanding on part one of their conversation, Building the Bridge podcast host Dr. Wendy Oliver and her guest, Dr. Kathryn Kennedy, continued an important discussion about the trauma students are facing, how educators can understand where their students are coming from, and how to best serve their students in the upcoming school year. The first episode of the two-part podcast mini-series covered Dr. Kennedy’s perspective on social-emotional learning (SEL), her personal experience with trauma, and some surprising information about trauma and prolonged stress. In part two, she identifies how parents and educators can create an environment where kids are comfortable sharing when they have experienced trauma. She also describes types of traumas that kids are experiencing and ways to help students.
Here are three important takeaways from the interview:
Creating the Comfortable Environment
Dr. Kennedy shares that she doesn’t think you need to have a lot of training or background in emotional well-being and mental health to be able to be there for students. The main thing is to allow them space to come to you when they’re ready to process. Every person is going to process things in different ways and they’re also going to be ready to share at different times.
The key is to be mindful of the type or types of behavior that a child is exhibiting. When a child reacts in a certain way that does not match up with a situation, the underlying condition could be that it is a stress response or a trauma response. As an educator, instead of going to that punishment space, we now need to think more in terms of restorative practices, an example of which would be to allow the child to have some space first to process what is happening and then provide an opening for a relationship with you. The relationship piece is going to be so important. Having one-on-one conversations with students, checking in with them and just being human is going to be essential.
The hope is that we can give students the space they need in order to process what they need to process, to reflect on what they need, and to ask for what they need. The educators and adults in their lives need to act as their advocates until they can learn how to advocate for themselves.
Related Reading: Two Ways Trauma Affects Students and Adults
Trauma and the Continuum of Tolerance
The trauma that we’re seeing as students come back to school is aligned to the trauma affecting students who have undergone adverse childhood experiences or ACEs. Examples include experiencing or witnessing abuse, being in an accident, having a parent lose their job, parents getting divorced, losing a family member, food instability, homelessness, and many more. There are so many different variables that can be considered traumatizing to a student. Trauma does not have to be huge things either. Dr. Kennedy describes trauma as more of a continuum. Depending upon one’s window of tolerance, he or she might not be able to handle a traumatic event as well as somebody else can. Everybody is going to deal with a traumatic event differently than another person. When children return to the classroom, we need to give them the space to process what is happening. When they react to something, they need to feel comfortable coming to you and be able to share what they’re experiencing.
A lot of times when we think about behavior and we think that kids are acting up, we go to the punishment space. She states, “Right now, in research we’re seeing that it’s more about restorative practices and really trying to get at the underlying cause of what that behavior is. We’re finding that a lot of times it’s because of a trauma trigger or a prolonged stress trigger.” Dr. Kennedy continues to describe the way to handle this is to get to the root cause of what is happening, uncover what is making them react in such a way, and provide the support for them that they are not receiving.
“Right now, in research, we’re seeing that it’s more about restorative practices and really trying to get at the underlying cause of what that behavior is. We’re finding that a lot of times it’s because of a trauma trigger or a prolonged stress trigger.” - Dr. Kathryn Kennedy
Strategies to Help Students
Dr. Kennedy states that dealing with trauma is related to coming back to your center and feeling grounded. A typical reaction to trauma or stress is the desire to escape our bodies or disassociate. When you disassociate with yourself, it’s almost like a third party looking down on what’s happening, rather than you being inside your own body. It’s a coping mechanism to avoid unwanted feelings.
A way to help a student to come back to their center is to engage the five senses. Dr. Kennedy suggests asking the student to identify five things they see and five things they hear, smell, taste, and feel. This exercise allows them to get back in touch with themselves and feel more grounded. She continues to add that being present in the moment and having things that comfort students will help them return to their center.
Her final piece of advice for helping a child feel more grounded is to focus on their breath. It takes a lot of concentration and internal work for your body to engage in long, slow, deep breaths. The key is to get the child to concentrate on the breath coming into the body and going out of the body. Additionally, there are also guided meditations that students can do. They can come in the form of stories, which kids love. It doesn’t take much time, either. Three to five minutes is enough time for people to be able to connect back with themselves.
As educators, it is likely you will encounter students who have experienced trauma as a result of the pandemic. Understanding those traumas, coping mechanisms, and ways to help students feel comfortable will be key factors in facilitating a successful academic year.
Listen to part of of the podcast interview with Dr. Kathryn Kennedy, and all episodes of Building the Bridge, at https://www.edisonlearning.com/podcast. If you missed part one, listen below: