How Can Educators Balance Academics and Trauma Sensitivity During a Pandemic-Era Back to School?

Black teacher chats with teen student.

By Mara Schanfield

July 8, 2020

Back in March, educators started teaching from home as schools closed due to the global pandemic. In April, we worried about students and their families who were dealing with unemployment, illness, and even death brought by COVID-19. In early May, we accepted that returning in person this school year was out of reach. And now, after months of societal upheaval, we face a summer of unknowns, wondering what the new school year will bring.

Given that students missed up to three months of instruction, it is natural for educators and families to be gravely concerned about learning loss. Meanwhile, our students have spent the quarantine coping with trauma, demonstrating resilience, and honing other critical skills—such as listening, self-advocacy, and creativity—in unconventional ways that will serve them well in school and in life. If the return to school focuses narrowly on instruction and assessment in reading, writing, and arithmetic, students may fall farther behind socially, emotionally, and even academically.

The creation of a safe, supportive, equitable, and engaging learning environment must not be overshadowed by the urgency to address the 2020 spring and summer academic melt. The upcoming school year is going to look different, so this is our chance to re-examine school through a trauma-sensitive lens. A trauma-sensitive school is one in which all students feel safe, welcomed, and supported (Cole, Eisner, Gregory, & Ristuccia, 2013). In a trauma-sensitive school, all aspects of the educational environment center on universal support and care for all students.

So how can educators incorporate trauma sensitivity into their practice—whether remote or in person—this fall? Consider turning to Dr. Bruce Perry’s 3 R’s: regulate, relate, and reason.

Regulate

How we show up every day in mind and body, including our physiological state, influences our capacity to learn, teach, and engage with others. Unfortunately, exposure to stress and trauma compromises our capacity to remain in a regulated state. Every airplane ride involves the reminder that putting on your own oxygen mask first allows you to then help others more effectively. And the COVID-19 pandemic has now taught us that when we wear face masks, we’re also protecting those around us from the virus. Similarly, we must help ourselves through self-regulation before we can effectively serve our students.

Self-regulation is a skill that allows us to be aware of how we are feeling and manage our reactions in healthy ways. However, when we are stressed, our nervous systems respond by releasing the chemical cortisol, which can inhibit our ability to self-regulate. When faced with overwhelming stress and traumatic or threatening situations, our brains and bodies shift to a survival state, which can look like:

  • Extreme reactions to sudden movements, loud noises, physical contact, or interactions with other people
  • Quick escalation of anger or frustration
  • Difficulty expressing and managing emotions
  • Anxiety, excessive worry, and racing thoughts
  • Feelings of fear and escalated concern for safety
  • Difficulty concentrating and processing information
  • Physical symptoms (e.g., headaches, weight gain, poor sleep quality)
  • Difficulty connecting with and trusting others
  • A negative sense of self

We are continuously improving our self-regulation skills over our lifetimes. Learning to recognize our own moments of dysregulation to bring ourselves back to equilibrium takes practice. Self-regulation techniques include deep breathing, finding an object to hold or squeeze, or doing a simple math problem to rebalance. By learning to recognize the connections between our emotions, our thinking, and our behavior, we can cope with difficult emotions effectively. Try using a grounding technique like repeating a mantra; writing a note to remind yourself to “pause for the cause”; or if you notice your tone is heightened during a virtual interaction, clicking “mute” before saying something you might regret. As students observe our actions, they can learn self-regulation skills, too. We can prepare to face this fall’s inevitable stressors by practicing these approaches and making a commitment now to ourselves about which specific technique to use when feelings of dysregulation arise.

Tool: To engage more with “regulate,” check out the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders’ Educator Resilience and Trauma-Informed Self-Care Assessment and Planning Tool.

Relate

Whether teaching the same students as last year, or a whole new group, getting to know each other first provides a foundation for successful teaching and learning. The old adage that “students won’t care about what you know until they know you care” is now even more true. First, acknowledge the spectrum of realities everyone has experienced since March 2020. To paraphrase Dr. Wehmah Jones, while we are not in the same boat, it could be said that we are all in the same storm. We have all been dealing with loss of some kind, but don’t assume your experience has been the same as that of your students. Instead allow time and space for sharing and reflection. If you are asked a question you are not prepared to answer, a genuine “Why would you like to know?” can help build a shared understanding and allow you time to think of an appropriate and honest response.

Second, emphasize strengths over deficits. Let’s get curious about how our students have grown during these uncertain times. Don’t try to teach resilience to students who have weathered much this year. Instead honor the experiences each person has had. What skills did students develop or hone, whether intentionally or unintentionally, during this time? Perhaps they learned to share a laptop with multiple siblings, or maybe they showed strong commitment by going somewhere to access the internet. Maybe they worked 40 hours a week at the grocery store to support their family. What did they gain from these experiences?

Third, focus on ways to enhance physical, emotional, and identity safety by sending clear signals through tone, words, and body language. Physical safety in schools will likely include protocols for masks, hand washing, and social distancing. Providing emotional safety means using calm and compassionate responses, which are most effective when conveyed without judgement or shock. And identity safety refers to a learning space that promotes respect for differences, agency, student voice, and connectedness to thrive (Cohn-Vargas & Steele, 2013). When students at a school north of Dallas, Texas, were asked what teachers could do to make the classroom safer, their top two answers were simple yet profound (Osher, Moroney, & Williamson, 2018):

  1. Get to know my name and how to pronounce it
  2. Get to know what embarrasses me and protect me from that

Relational support and safety undergird trauma sensitivity. In fact, healthy relationships can serve as a regulating force, particularly when either person is experiencing stress. Given the widespread stressors due to COVID-19 and a renewed reckoning with systemic racism ignited by George Floyd’s murder, allowing time for genuine human connection is imperative. Whether you are facilitating a virtual show-and-tell or an in-person trigonometry lesson as the school year begins, first ensure that all students feel welcomed, connected, and appreciated for who they are.

Tool: To engage more with “relate,” see the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders’ Supporting Student Resilience and Well-Being with Trauma-Informed Care Educator Self-Assessment and Planning Tool.

Reason

The human brain is a 3.5-pound mass of 10–12 billion neurons and synapses, capable of reasoning, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking. Students engage in reading, writing, and arithmetic most successfully when they feel calm and connected. This means regulation and relationships must precede tasks that require reasoning. The capacity for cognitive processing applies to educators as well as students—until we are in a regulated state and connected to those around us, we are unlikely to reason effectively. In this moment especially, our job requires us to manage our own emotions and strengthen relationships with students before giving a baseline academic assessment or assigning a textbook chapter.

Tool: To learn more about trauma-sensitive schools, see the National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments’ Trauma-Sensitive Schools Training Package.

We have always expected a lot of our public education system. This new school year brings extra challenges most responsive to a trauma-sensitive approach. Trauma sensitivity relies on educators who model and embody strong self-regulation and connect with students by building developmental relationships before teaching content. So let’s regulate and relate before we reason—from a safe social distance of course.

Mara Schanfield leads the Region 9 Comprehensive Center’s teacher retention project with Chicago Public Schools and is a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. Schanfield, a licensed school counselor, has more than 15 years of experience supporting students, educators, and social and emotional learning in school and out-of-school time settings.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.