Understanding Trauma for the Classroom

Every school has students that endure a shattering personal event and suffer in silence. Teachers, leaders, and counselors know this but often forget to be looking for the subtle and not-to-subtle signs that something is awry.

Before going any further, the Stride Professional Development Center needs to stop and define the term. Trauma refers to an event that is experienced by an individual causing physical or emotional harm leading to lasting effects. That definition is complex but each part will be examined further.  

EVENT – this can be a single event or a series of circumstances. These events could have occurred at school or within their family context. Examples of a traumatic event could include an accident, natural disaster, bullying (both physical and mental), death in the family, or a violent event.

EXPERIENCE – it is hard to set clear parameters of a traumatic event because each person experiences those events differently. This fact is underscored in that individuals possess a wide array of coping mechanisms, cultural experience, and coping mechanism. For students at school, never look at an event they endured through a personal lens of experience.

EFFECT – this aspect is just as difficult to determine as the experience because, again, each student is uniquely different. Short-term effects like withdrawing socially to grieve the loss of a loved one may be overcome through proper counseling. Long-term effects such as severe weight loss, however, require more intensive support.

For more detailed warning signs, there are two great resources to review:

1. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network put forward a toolkit for educators in 2008. Although dated, warning signs for grade levels are still informative on pages 7-14.

2. The Center for Child Trauma Assessment Services and Interventions at Northwestern University chart that breaks down signs for preschool, elementary, and middle/high school students.

Remember, trauma can be a single or series of events that create as experiences that will vary by person creating individual effects – whether short or long term. In our next blog, the focus turns to specific teacher or leader actions that can help students cope with trauma.

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