What Principals Need to Know About Student Trauma

Nearly a quarter of young students are affected by trauma.

Principals often see the effects of student trauma play out in the halls of school, even among the youngest of students. An estimated 25 percent of kids experience serious trauma in their childhoods. But do we fully understand it and know how to face the challenges of trauma? Here’s what you need to know and how to best serve your school community and students who may be experiencing trauma.

What is trauma?

We toss around the word trauma, but how many of us know what it actually means? The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says that trauma is an experience or event that is painful, shocking, or stressful.

Traumatic events can include natural disasters (devastation from hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.), violent attacks (terrorism, school shootings, etc.) or abuse (childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, etc.). What causes trauma in one person or child may not traumatize another; so it’s important to remember that there’s no easy way to define what sorts of events are traumatic.

What do trauma responses look like?

Trauma responses vary widely. The underlying concept with trauma, however, is that the brain feels so overwhelmed by the event that it can’t rely on common means of coping. A child might feel unable to cope with an event, or may begin to cope in negative ways. This is known as maladaptive coping.

Kids who experience trauma regularly or who have a preexisting mental health condition are especially at risk for being affected by trauma. They may also show more severe trauma responses.

What are the signs of trauma principals may see? The NIMH says that kids younger than 5 often regress in response to trauma. They might become more clingy or wet themselves. Older children, ages 6 through 11, often withdraw or become quiet after experiencing trauma. They can also have trouble with impulse control, which may lead to outbursts, fights, or an inability to concentrate. Teens often become isolated, act out, or begin abusing substances.

What does trauma have to do with mental health?

Just as physical trauma can impact a person’s body and leave scars that last for years, psychological trauma does the same, although there is no physical marker. Childhood trauma—especially repeated exposure over time—is associated with an increased risk for mental illness (as a child and as an adult). Physical ailments may include obesity.

Kids who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be misdiagnosed with other mental health conditions, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Although the symptoms are similar, treatments for these conditions are different. It’s important that adults in the child’s life, including school officials, advocate for the right diagnosis.

Trauma makes it harder for kids to learn.

Experiencing trauma has a direct effect on a student’s ability to learn. Kids who have experienced trauma might have flashbacks or have trouble concentrating, which can prevent them from focusing on lessons. Trauma may also negatively impact a student’s ability to learn.

Trauma can affect teachers, too.

Many great teachers can become emotionally invested in their students. Sadly, that can sometimes expose teachers to trauma as well. Hearing about a student’s traumatic experience or helping them navigate a frightening event can leave teachers with vicarious, or secondary, trauma.

“It seems like teachers have in some ways become case workers. They get to know about their students’ lives and the needs of their families, and with that can come secondary trauma,” LeAnn Keck, a manager at Trauma Smart, told Edutopia.

Signs of vicarious trauma include thinking about the student or situation often, feeling hopeless, or withdrawing. Talk with teachers and staff about self-care and their own emotional needs when they work with students experiencing trauma.

What can principals do?

Like most mental health conditions, trauma thrives in darkness. Open conversations may increase access to treatment and improve outcomes for students who are suffering from trauma.

The first step is understanding how common trauma is and that it can be present in any student. The next is creating a school environment that encourages open conversations and has policies that are sensitive to trauma-exposed kids. If you hope to foster a more trauma-informed school, consider taking the Trauma Responsive Schools Implementation Assessment. This assessment is free and can help you identify strong and weak points in your school when it comes to addressing trauma.

Knowing about the effects of trauma and their impact on learning will make a huge difference for the students in your care.

Join our Facebook group Principal Life for more conversation about and insights into the challenges of school leadership.

Posted by Kelly Burch

Kelly Burch is a freelance journalist who covers mental health topics regularly. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @writingburch.

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