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Dealing with Traumatic Events in the Classroom

Children learning to cope with tragedy in the classroom

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Mr. Rogers once told his preschool audience, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Mr. Rogers’ words still hold true today. Though the headlines are full of violence, natural and man-made disasters, and other tragedies, every trauma is accompanied by stories of helpers. Doctors go into disease-infested areas, boaters rescue people from floods, and ordinary people run into burning buildings and forests to save others. It’s often up to teachers to help students interpret and cope with the difficult news of the day, and become the “helpers” others can count on.

In this article, we’ll explore how different age groups react to traumatic events and practical strategies for helping them become resilient in the face of tragedy.

How Different Age Groups React to Traumatic Events 

Everyone reacts differently to trauma. If teachers aren’t familiar with all the signs, they might misunderstand why students are acting out and be unable to offer the appropriate supports. The National Institute for Mental Health has broken down common reactions for each age group.

Preschool Children (Age 5 and Under)

Preschool children might:

  • Cling to parents or caregivers.
  • Cry and be tearful.
  • Have tantrums and be irritable.
  • Complain of physical problems such as stomach aches or headaches.
  • Suddenly return to behaviors such as bed-wetting and thumb-sucking.
  • Show increased fearfulness (e.g., of the dark, monsters, or being alone).
  • Incorporate aspects of the traumatic event into imaginary play.

Elementary School Students (Ages 6–11)

Elementary school students might:

  • Have problems in school.
  • Isolate themselves from family and friends.
  • Have nightmares, refuse to go to bed, or experience other sleep problems.
  • Become irritable, angry, or disruptive.
  • Be unable to concentrate.
  • Complain of physical problems such as stomachaches and headaches.
  • Develop unfounded fears.
  • Lose interest in fun activities.

Adolescents (Ages 12–17)

Adolescents might:

  • Have nightmares or other sleep problems.
  • Avoid reminders of the event.
  • Use or abuse drugs, alcohol, or tobacco.
  • Be disruptive or disrespectful or behave destructively.
  • Complain of physical problems such as stomachaches and headaches.
  • Become isolated from friends and family.
  • Be angry or resentful.
  • Lose interest in fun activities.

Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools and Coping Mechanisms

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for trauma. One student might move on from a difficult event without missing a beat, another might respond well to interventions right away, and yet another might seem impervious to any attempts to help. Regardless, it’s important that teachers work to make their classrooms safe spaces and provide help when the bad headlines hit close to home.

Here are some techniques you can use in your classroom to help your students cope with traumatic situations:

  • A Calm Corner: Sometimes used for misbehavior or conflict, a calm corner gives students a space to identify their feelings and choose a calming strategy they can work through before rejoining the rest of the class. This technique is designed for elementary school children, but can be adapted for older students as well.
  • The Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS) Program: This is a training program and collection of resources intended for teachers to use when students experience community or school violence, accidents and injuries, physical abuse and domestic violence, and natural and man-made disasters. This resource is geared toward 5th- to 12th-grade students.
  • Normalize and Acknowledge Feelings: Trauma can often give rise to feelings of deep anger and resentment. It’s important to reassure students that these feelings are normal and valid, and furthermore help them to express their anger in a healthy way. Lynne Namka, Ed.D., came up with a list of cues to help teachers coach their students through angry feelings.
  • Writing: Penning an essay or even writing down a simple thought can help students process their feelings in a healthy way. Teachers can prepare any number of prompts that help students come to terms with their natural emotions.

More Techniques for Helping Students Overcome Trauma

Today’s students are dealing with traumatic events in a way no generation has before. The Internet, while a blessing, feeds us constant news of tragedies around the world, and domestic violence, mental illness, and abuse are never as far away as we’d like to think. The strategies in this article barely scratch the surface of ways teachers can hep their students cope with the challenges of modern life. That’s why Advancement Courses has created several in-depth courses for helping students overcome trauma and deepen their social–emotional learning:

  • Helping Students Overcome Trauma: Educators can provide the kind of support students need to transform from trauma victims to trauma survivors by helping students proactively deal with trauma. Learn strategies to help your school become trauma sensitive and a place of empowerment and outreach.
  • Ethical, Legal, and Professional Issues in Counseling: This course provides an evaluation of industry-accepted ethical codes within counseling, psychology, and social work. You’ll examine professional issues, legal responsibilities, and their potential ramifications, and learn to consider ethical dilemmas and design acceptable responses to inform your own practice.
  • Strategies for Addressing Student Anxiety: One in five students currently struggles with anxiety issues, affecting their ability to learn and disrupting health and sleep. This course will help you understand and recognize anxiety dysfunction and develop classroom strategies to support students who suffer from it.
  • Kindness: Can It Be Taught?: Though it’s rarely taught, researchers believe kindness can (and should) be actively nurtured in the classroom. In this course, you’ll learn about the biological roots of kindness, the personal and social benefits it creates, and how to help students be empathetic, honest, and trustworthy.
  • Staying Present: Mindfulness for Better Teaching and Learning: When teachers and students are centered and able to manage their emotions, they are more successful in and out of school. This course provides tools to create a culture where every member of your class is mindful and able to stay present even in stressful situations.

In addition to these, Advancement Courses offers K–12 educators more than 240 online, self-paced professional development courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends. All courses are offered for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

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