• Dr. Nickey Woods

A trauma-informed approach? It's vital post-pandemic

The COVID-19 vaccine brings students and teachers one step closer to returning to the classroom, a possibility that both parents and educators have been eagerly awaiting. The sense of urgency to return to in-person learning is understandable, as remote learning is taking a heavy toll on more than just the academic performance of students from coast to coast. Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show mental health-related emergency room visits between March and October of 2020 increased nearly 28 percent for children ages 5 to 17, compared to the same period in 2019.

Academic projections suggest major impacts from COVID-19 school closures, especially in mathematics. According to the AP, school districts across the country have reported the number of students failing classes has increased by as many as two or three times. It is likely that the United States educational system will be reeling from the effects of the pandemic for years to come, with English language learners, students with disabilities, and low-income students bearing the brunt of the educational damage.

Remedial efforts will likely focus on math and English, with schools under pressure to make up for skills lost during remote learning — and to help students who were falling behind pre-pandemic. Competency in these subject areas prepares students for later academic success — and particularly so in math, where applied knowledge and conceptual understanding builds upon topics learned in previous courses.

But as we think about the educational system post-pandemic, school districts must also consider the impact that COVID-19 has had on communities and families across the country — and be prepared to respond in ways that demonstrate an understanding of how traumatic experiences shape the ways our students behave and learn. This is even more vital for students who entered the pandemic having already experienced trauma.

During my teacher preparation courses in the late 90s and early 2000s, I didn’t give much thought to child trauma or how it might impact student learning. That revelation would come years later after having a conversation with a psychologist colleague who pointed me to the CDC-Kaiser ACE study.

One of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect, the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study sought to elucidate how trauma, or adverse childhood experiences, impact people throughout their lifetime. It found that more than two thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by age 16, and that trauma is a factor for nearly all behavioral health and substance use disorders. In 2018, Oprah Winfrey reported on childhood trauma and its lifelong impacts.

Putting it plainly, the majority of students enter U.S. classrooms having experienced some type of traumatic life event. Coupled with pre-existing inequities, these experiences may have a more devastating impact on students hardest hit by the pandemic. In the wake of COVID-19 and an increased focus in 2020 on both social justice and civics, now more than ever, it is critical that school districts, administrators, and educators have the requisite tools and resources to consider adopting a trauma-informed approach in policy-making, school climate considerations, and classroom practices.

Researchers who study how trauma impacts the brain have found that adverse childhood experiences can harm the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems, altering the physical structure of DNA. From an educational perspective, changes to the brain as a result of trauma can affect a student’s ability to learn, pay attention, regulate behavior, and control their emotions. If factors are not in place to mitigate the impacts of these experiences, children growing up under the weight of trauma often struggle in school.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), four key assumptions should guide a trauma-informed approach. Also known as “the four R’s,” a school that is trauma-informed:

  1. Realizes the widespread impact of trauma

  2. Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma

  3. Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices

  4. Resists re-traumatization

Six guiding principles to a trauma-informed approach

The CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (OPHPR) and SAMHSA’s National Center for Trauma-Informed Care (NCTIC) collaborated to develop and facilitate training for OPHPR employees. The training centered on the role of trauma-informed care during public health emergencies and sought to increase responder awareness of the impact that trauma can have in the communities they serve. The training, based on SAMHSA’s 6 Guiding Principles To A Trauma-Informed Approach, can also increase trauma awareness in educational settings. They include:

  1. Safety

  2. Trustworthiness & transparency

  3. Peer support

  4. Collaboration & mutuality

  5. Empowerment & choice

  6. Cultural, historical & gender issues

In 2020, Teaching Tolerance shared resources for a Trauma-Informed Approach to Teaching Through Coronavirus and in 2016, the social justice-based educational resource introduced three trauma-informed teaching strategies that are relevant to post-pandemic K-12 education. They include a focus on emotional safety, positive reinforcement, and an increased awareness of trauma competency.

As teachers prepare to return to K-12 classrooms, they will be welcoming back students who have lost family members to COVID-19 and students whose families have faced extreme economic hardship as a result of the pandemic. Some educators will be coming back having experienced the same traumatic experiences. School districts must ensure that their schools are prepared to support teachers, students, and their families post-pandemic. The four R’s are a solid first step.

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