During the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, reports of child abuse at hospitals went down. But it turns out that’s not good news. Most experts agree that it’s likely the incidents of child abuse increased as children that were seen in emergency rooms presented more significant and severe injuries. It’s also thought that signs of abuse are not being reported because children are isolated from teachers and other adults likely to intervene on their behalf.
In addition to a potential increase in physical abuse, students face other trauma. From losing a loved one to COVID-19, to changes in living situations, to food insecurity, or other economic stress. These situations affect children and will likely manifest at some point during the child’s academic career. Teachers must be prepared to help students with trauma, which can otherwise stunt social and emotional development.
Trauma Can Cloud SEL Development
Students who have experienced trauma often encounter more challenges with social and emotional development than their peers. When exposed to trauma, our brains and bodies prioritize survival skills and response. This can suspend conventional social interactions and the development of SEL skills.
Students may present trauma in a number of different ways including:
- Disengagement from course material
- Disinterest in learning.
- General defiance.
- Difficulty with boundaries.
- Becoming too self-reliant or too reliant on others.
A student’s academic or extracurricular performance in school may also suffer.
As part of the human body’s reaction to stress and trauma, the limbic system and fight or flight responses become actively hyperstimulated. Over time, this can interfere with the child’s health as well as the brain’s ability to engage in higher reasoning, planning, and long-term thinking.
How Can Teachers Help?
The first step is to recognize that school itself may be a high-stress situation for students who have experienced trauma. As a result, teachers should be open to flexible learning options for those students. Many students have been learning remotely for nearly a year. As they return to classrooms we should not expect them all to fit easily back into in-person learning models with 30-student classrooms.
Further, all educators should be aware that intensity matters. The intensity of trauma reactions may not always be relational to the degree of trauma endured. So educators need to be prepared to be accommodating and understanding. This might mean investing in support programs designed to help students cope with both acute and chronic trauma.
Many SEL programs have focused largely on the overall school climate. And that’s important–students who have experienced trauma need a safe and comfortable place where they can be supported. But that’s also why educators must be prepared to support traumatized students, who may simply look like “troublemakers” when the full context of their trauma is not known.
Additionally, it’s vital that educators ensure they are adequately accessible to students who are struggling with SEL due to trauma. In general, students have shown greater success in coping with trauma when they have educators, teachers, and caregivers who are present.
Even when educators are present and open to students, they may find it challenging to make meaningful connections. That’s why it’s essential that teachers also feel as though they are in a well-cared for place and given the tools and training to deal with situations that may arise. Ensuring that teachers are supported equips educators with the space and energy to be available for students in need.
Special Training May Be Required
Schools will be on the front lines of this challenge for years to come. Developing a trauma-informed toolbox for your school system or your classroom is, therefore, absolutely essential to helping students get the assistance, care, and attention they need.
The pandemic has escalated exposure to trauma for students, and the sooner your teachers have the right skills, the better.