Mental Health

Helping Students Who Have Experienced Trauma

To help a student who's experienced trauma, ground yourself emotionally, determine your own role, and address that student's emotional truth from a place of informed support.
A closeup of a teenage girl sitting slouched, resting her head in her cupped hands. She's looking up and to the side with tears in her eyes. She's sitting in a naturally lit room with couches, comfy chairs, coffee tables, and a small, potted tree.

When educators talk about "the whole child," we recognize our students as humans with complex lives that include interests, joys, passions, experiences, fears, needs, and hopes. Sometimes their lives may also include traumatic experiences, either in their past or ongoing even as we interact with them day to day.

As a teacher, you have a few ways of finding out that a student has experienced trauma. Some IEPs will incorporate this information. Sometimes a counselor or social worker may fill you in, or a parent or family member. The trauma may be a known part of your community's fabric -- for example, a natural disaster that destroyed a student's home, or a war in the country where your student used to live.

A student may also personally disclose that he or she experienced current or past trauma. For more on responding in the moment, see this guideline from the Australian Institute of Family Studies (PDF), which is specific to abuse but applicable to many types of trauma that a student may disclose. Be sure that you know your state's mandated reporting laws and follow through on any in-school systems that may be in place.

After receiving this information -- in whichever way it comes to you -- now what?

Here are some considerations and steps when integrating it into your practice in a way that best supports your student.

1. Absorb the information.

Take the time you need to process your own response to learning about the trauma, in a place that is safe for you. We all respond in different ways to hearing about our students' experiences with trauma. My own reaction to information about my students' lives has covered a spectrum from sadness to anger, heartbreak to disbelief, and sometimes the information impacts me in ways I didn't anticipate. In order to best serve my students, I need to adequately process these emotions until I am grounded enough to be supportive to others. Whether it's private journaling, talking to a trusted friend or colleague, or accessing your own therapist or counselor, start by working through your emotions, whatever they may be.

2. Recognize emotional truth.

Remember that the factual truth is unimportant compared to the student's emotional truth. As a teacher, your role is not to investigate the details of a student's trauma, or even know all or any of them. Your role is not to challenge the student's or family's description of what happened or ask whether it really occurred. Humans respond in a huge variety of ways to stressors, and so your time is better spent understanding how your student emotionally responds to the traumatic experience, and how that emotional response may impact the student in your school setting.

3. Be clear about your role.

A true community of support for a student requires a few different roles, depending on the situation: teachers, social workers, mental health professionals, and care providers/family, to name a few. Don't try to take on every role on that list -- it's not healthy for you or for the student! If you're not sure who else is involved in a student's constellation of care, make it your first priority to find out, and if you have the permission of the student and family, communicate with those people.

4. Seek to better understand "problem behaviors."

Once you develop an understanding of how the student is impacted by trauma, use this context to reframe what might be thought of as "problem behaviors." Example: Instead of seeing a student's rude outburst as a sign of willful disrespect, I might instead understand it as a marker of a missing emotional self-regulation skill. A student who can't sit still and paces around the classroom? With an understanding of trauma impacts, I might now recognize how that student has a heightened sense of vigilance around safety in her environment. Once I reframe these behaviors for myself, I can now respond to the core issue rather than the behavior itself.

5. Coordinate with others.

Students can develop a sense of safety when multiple adults in their lives respond in consistent ways. Using common language, offering the same set of strategies, or using similar cues can help a student internalize positive ways of addressing challenges. Even without coordinating specific strategies, a common mindset toward the child goes a long way -- see Unconditional Positive Regard or Kids Do Well If They Can as examples.

6. Learn from the experts.

While every student responds differently to trauma, there are tons of resources out there for better understanding impacts of trauma, ways to be supportive in and out of the classroom, and how to build positive social and emotional skills. One of the best experts, though? The student! Ask your student what he needs to feel supported, what strategies work or don't work when he's having a hard time, and how you can help him be successful in your class. Some students might surprise you with their insight, and some might never have been asked and will benefit from the opportunity to develop their answers.

7. Continue checking in with yourself.

Being in a supportive role to someone who is managing the impacts of trauma can be challenging, and may result in vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. Check out NCTSN's Self Care for Educators resource (PDF) for more information and tips on these challenges. But the bottom line is taking care of yourself and getting your own support so that you may support others.

Our students benefit when we thoughtfully align our strategies and supports with our best understanding. Though it is difficult to find out that our students may be in pain, this knowledge is also the first step in helping them move forward.