Spotlight on Student Trauma

  • The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida Feb. 14 left 17 students dead and 17 more injured. It has put student trauma in the spotlight like never before.

    Since the tragedy, survivor students from the school have led a national movement for gun reform that has captivated the world. On March 24, millions across America and around the world rallied in the “March for Our Lives” demonstrations to show support.

    Parkland and the scores of other school shootings are the most glaring examples of how trauma impacts students, but psychological trauma is surprisingly common. And it is something teachers need to be able to recognize and handle. And while the media focus is on the students, trauma has a lasting impact on teachers as well. It is something teachers must understand and learn to handle, for the sake of their students and themselves.

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    Teaching students with trauma

    The fallout from emotionally jarring life events ending up in the classroom is a possibility for any teacher. Unfortunately, it can’t be left at the door. It is something that must be handled appropriately. Overcoming tragedy is not easy. And it is up to teachers, as well as parents and counselors, to be prepared to help in the healing process if students are expected to learn.

    Educators today are seeing more and more students entering their classrooms with significant mental and emotional needs resulting from trauma they have experienced in their lives. It is imperative in today’s classroom that teachers understand the causes of trauma, how to identify the signs of trauma, and how to effectively work with and support students experiencing the effects of trauma.

    Every day, school kids are growing and discovering things about living life in a rapidly-changing world. Sometimes, though, those things can be uncomfortable at best, and deeply injurious at worst, experts say. Moreover, the reality is that this will always find a way to manifest in a student’s behavior.

    Managing student suffering

    At least once in their lifetime, most Americans will experience a traumatic event. As defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), that means exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence.

    “Most of us who face a cataclysmic, traumatic event may have intrusive recollections, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and a constellation of negative emotions,” according to Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the Department of Psychological Science at UNC Charlotte.

    Symptoms seen in many students are consistent with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a potentially debilitating condition that affects nearly 7 percent of Americans.

    Data shows that more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma in the form of abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances—and 35 percent of children have experienced more than one type of traumatic event, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

    Coping strategies for student trauma

    Trauma comes in many forms, as mentioned. Even safety measures like active-shooter drills can be significantly traumatizing. Experts say teachers need to be open and available and make it clear that there are no right or wrong ways to feel. Teachers must also learn to recognize problems and respond accordingly. It can be tough, but teachers must also lead by example. That means staying strong even when stressed.

    There is an abundance of resources available when it comes to helping students dealing with significant suffering. To get started, teachers should consider a professional development course that will guide them and also introduce them to the many resources available.