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Helping your students and yourself cope with CoVid 19 trauma: a guide for educators

The past few weeks have seen heroic efforts on the part of school administrators, teachers, and students to move very quickly in order to transition the classes that they were teaching face to face to online course delivery.

That so many of us have successfully dealt with this challenge at an incredible speed should be applauded. However, I think in our rush to maintain continuity for our students and our lives, we have not given adequate consideration to the trauma that we have all experienced.

We are all dealing with the potential trauma of our work and home lives having been disrupted, as well as the uncertainties the CoVid-19 pandemic has caused. Some people may be facing illness, coping with loss, or managing loss of income during what is a difficult time for all.

It is my hope that the use of trauma-informed techniques can bring some peace, stability and healing to teachers and students who need this now.

By the time you finish reading this, you should have an understanding of trauma, how it can impact learning, and what you can do to help your students- and yourself – cope with trauma.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is defined as an event that causes an individual to feel that their life, or the life of someone they love, is threatened in some way. During a time in which our livelihoods, our very lives, as well as those of our loved ones, are threatened by the CoVid-19 outbreak, it is expected that many of us will feel the effects of trauma.

Everyone Experiences Trauma

We all experience potentially traumatic events at various points in our lives. But trauma experienced by one person may not bother another person. One individual might find the disruption to school and work caused by CoVid-19 deeply traumatic, while another person may not be greatly bothered by this at all.

How does trauma impact learning?

There are three typical reactions to trauma:

· Fight

· Flight

· Freeze

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Reactions to Trauma

My personal reaction is definitely ‘flight.’

When I first realized the scale of the CoVid-19 pandemic, I instinctively began wondering if my husband and I should leave our home and go someplace safer. Should my husband and I go to the UK? (His native country and one in which I am resident) Should we go to Canada or Australia? Even though it didn’t really make logical sense, I was struck by an urge to run.

My husband, in contrast, reacts with ‘fight.’ When I suggested we leave our home, he argued we should ‘make our stand’ where we live. (He has also spent a lot of time yelling at the news about the current situation!)

Someone whose reaction to trauma is ‘freeze’ might feel paralyzed or powerless to make any decisions at all during this time.

So what do Fight, Flight and Freeze look like in classroom settings?

  • Fight behavior can present as: Argumentative behavior, rudeness, classroom ‘outbursts,’ reluctance/resistance to participate in classroom tasks/directives

  • Flight behavior can present as: Absenteeism and punctuality issues, students seem “not there”

  • Freeze behavior can present as: Disengagement, limited/minimal participation

Have you noticed? These behaviors are all typical of students who are labelled disruptive and difficult! Once we view these behaviors as possible reactions to trauma, our strategies for dealing with them changes.

How can we help our students? And, hopefully, ourselves.

It’s good to know that traumatic impacts aren’t destiny – it is possible to mitigate the impacts of trauma, and to recover. Teachers can help with this by utilizing trauma-informed teaching techniques.

What’s Trauma Informed Teaching?

Trauma Informed Teaching is a method of teaching that involves creating teaching spaces that help students impacted by trauma feel safe in their classroom. This creates an environment that aids in recovery from trauma.

The idea originated after a 1998 study of the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). This study demonstrated a clear link between the number of ACEs an individual experienced and the onset of adult health issues.

The concept of creating a ‘trauma informed space,’ where people who had been impacted by trauma could feel safe and begin to heal first took off in the medical community, has moved into K-12 and is increasingly being considered in higher education settings.

How to Help Students Cope With Trauma?

Here are some simple practices you can institute to help your students cope with trauma:

Consider the impact that the content you are using might have on your students.

I taught a student last week who was working on a chapter about ‘natural disasters’ – I was very surprised the class had decided to go with it considering all that was going on in the world. Fortunately, the student I was working with did not seem greatly affected by it, but another individual might have found the subject material quite difficult to work with.

Are the images and stories you present for teaching reflective of your students?

Are there any groups who might feel left out or marginalized from the stories you choose to include or exclude?

Create opportunities for empowerment in the classroom. You can easily do this by allowing students to choose the topics you study and giving them choices of activities to work on during class time.

If you do have a good activity that you really want to work on, but that might potentially be difficult for students, allow them a chance to ‘opt out’ and prepare an alternative activity.

Help students know what to expect.

Create predictable classroom routines. If you need to vary from your standard schedule, give students as much advance notice about the change as possible.

Establish clear communication channels with your students

Good Communication goes a long way. Establish communication channels with your students early on in the term or as soon as you start an online course. Establish a standard practice so you can quickly share information with them and they can get in touch with you easily when they need to do so.

Take care of yourself first!

Teachers absolutely can play a role in creating an environment that is conducive to healing from trauma. It’s important to remember, however, that healing our students’ trauma is NOT our responsibility.

Be mindful of the impact that the current situation may have on you.

Dealing with issues related to trauma can cause retraumatization or ‘vicarious’ traumatization.

“Compassion fatigue” and burnout can be signs of vicarious trauma.

Make sure to give yourself time for self care - take time away from work and consider ways in which you can be supported.

We’re all in this together! Transitioning to online teaching can be a challenge, so good luck and be kind to yourself!

For more information about Trauma Informed Teaching for English, check out our blog post: Feeling Safe Enough to Learn-Trauma Informed Practices in English Language Teaching

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