How Teachers Can Help Students Cope With Trauma After a Disaster or Tragic Event

4 min


885 shares

The reality of being a schoolteacher today is that, at one point in their career, the majority of teachers will be called upon to help their students cope with trauma.

Trauma, defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, can take many forms. Trauma might be a shooting, either in a school or in a nearby community, a student death, or it could be a severe weather event that leaves devastation in its wake. Regardless of the specific nature of the trauma, school tends to be a constant in students’ lives. When their personal worlds are shattered, students turn to their families and their homes-away-from-home – schools – for support and help with the tumultuous emotions they are experiencing.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, trauma is a serious problem in the United States. The NASP estimates that 72 percent of students will experience a traumatic event before age 18.

Schools, in recognition of the fact that a traumatic event is a high possibility at any given point in the future, do well to have a plan of action in place so that a district-wide support system can be mobilized at a moment’s notice.

Schools have an important role in decreasing the impact of a traumatic event on a child, according to the NASP, because “children spend the majority of their day in school where caring adults are available to help them. Educators can help children by providing the structure of a usual routine, providing a safe place to share concerns, being sensitive to cues in the environment that may trigger a traumatic response, and providing additional support.”

Thankfully, there are numerous support organizations that can act as resources for today’s teachers, and there are many educators who are willing to share their own personal wisdom about how to help students in times of great need.

Taryn Snyder, who teaches third grade at a K-8 pilot school in Boston Public Schools, is in her ninth year teaching. She recalls teaching right after the Boston Marathon bombing.

“We were on a school break the week that it happened, but after coming back to school, kids (and faculty!) were really shaken,” she told Bored Teachers. “Boston has also had its fair share of neighborhood violence in the last few years. We’ve had many students who have lost family members to gun violence.”

In response to traumatic events such as these, Snyder says she changes her instructional plan, in order to help students cope with a tragedy.

“I always go back to Maslow’s Hierarchy,” she says. “If students don’t feel safe, it’s not fair for us to ask them to learn. When there’s a traumatic event that rocks our whole community, like the Marathon bombing, I tend to start our day with a circle where kids can share what they’ve heard or what they know. Often students arrive with so many misconceptions about what’s actually going on because they’ve heard from a friend who heard from a friend who heard from a friend and the information is usually incorrect. From there, the message I often try to get across is that there are many people who will make sure that students are safe.”

Dianna Plotts, a high school Spanish teacher in Oregon, echoes Snyder’s advice.

“When a tragedy strikes, forget everything you learned in teacher school. Throw out your lesson plans. No vocab list or formula is more important than your students’ well-being. Pull up a chair in the middle of the room and ask them how they are doing. A genuine ‘How are you holding up?’ Let students guide the conversation. It is their time to process, grieve, remember, and ask questions.”

Students need to know you care. The act may be small but the impact could be huge.”

Plotts also recommends that teachers allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of students.

“Don’t be afraid to hug your students or tell them that you love them. Especially when the tragedy is a suicide, students need to know you care. The act may be small but the impact could be huge. More than once, I have stood in front of a classroom full of students, tears streaming down my face, and told students how much I care for them and pleaded with them to seek help if they are struggling. Use the opportunity to share contact information for counselors and other suicide prevention resources. Above all else, be kind and compassionate.”

Schools can support trauma victims in a number of different ways. The first level of help usually comes from the classroom teacher who can provide a safe space for students to talk and share emotions. Typically, too, in response to trauma, schools will assemble a support team that consists of school and community counselors. Students can access these trained professionals as needed.

An educator’s main job, according to the NASP, is to help students reestablish safety and security.

“When it’s an individual student who has been impacted by a traumatic event, I try to open the lines of communication by sharing that I know that there’s some really sad or really scary stuff going on and letting the student know that if they want to talk, or write, or draw, we can make that happen,” Snyder says.

The National Association of School Psychologists put together this resource for helping children cope after a wildfire.

helping students cop with trauma feature image


Like it? Share with your friends!

885 shares
AuthorAmy

Veteran Member

I am an unrepentant lover of words - and lucky me, I spend all day, every day immersed in them. When I'm not teaching, I'm reading. Or writing. Or teaching eager (and sometimes not-so-eager) adolescents about the power of the written word. I live on the scenic Oregon Coast with my dog, two cats, and five-year-old son.

Choose A Format
Article
Share your amazing stories, tips, opinions, and other stuff that matters.
Video
Upload your funny, inspiring, DIY, or informative video(s) for the world to see!
Personality quiz
Leave the serious quizzes at school, these are strictly fun! You make the questions and pre-define the results.
Trivia quiz
Time to test your friends' knowledge! You choose the subject and have fun seeing who scores the highest!
Poll
Pose any question to millions of educators by creating your own polls/surveys, whether for research, for fun, or for the sake of curiosity!
List
Make your own classic internet listicle using photos, gifs, and/or videos (i.e. '9 Things/Reasons/Times/Ways...', 'Teacher Life: As Told By...', etc.)
Open List
Submit your own item and vote up for the best submission
Photo
Share your classroom decor, costumes, funny classroom antics, silly grading moments, or other teacher life shenanigans!