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How to Reopen Schools in a Trauma-Sensitive Way

Keeping the emotional well-being of students and educators the top priority.

Creating Supportive Schools in Difficult Circumstances

We have long known that for children to learn and thrive, schools must be places of physical safety and emotional support. The Lesley Institute for Trauma Sensitivity has identified four key values around which schools can develop a supportive environment for learning and well-being, particularly as we contemplate the return of students and educators to in-person learning environments.

Principle I: Building and Maintaining Positive Relationships

As we plan for how to engage our students when we reopen, we recall the words of Bruce Perry, noted child psychiatrist and trauma expert: "Never underestimate the therapeutic impact of a caring teacher." Research consistently demonstrates the importance of quality relationships with teachers, staff, and peers to student success and learning. 

Students and their families may have experienced a variety of stressors resulting from the pandemic—social isolation, lack of structure, financial or food insecurity, sickness, and more. These may exacerbate feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression as students return to school, manifesting as problems learning and/or behaving, as well as gaps in academic skills. Therefore, nurturing a climate and culture of trust and caring will pay big dividends in students’ ability to learn and self-regulate.

Don’t try to do everything at once. Begin with basic steps, such as:

  • Be sure that every student is known and connected to a caring adult
  • Establish routines and rituals that improve connectedness
  • Give students voice and listen to what they are saying—both the words and the feelings under the words.

Principle 2: Reframing Perspectives

As educators, we use several lenses to understand our students’ learning and behavior, including child development, cognitive skills, multiple intelligences, and cultural background. A shared understanding of the impacts of traumatic experience on student learning provides an important added dimension. In the current COVID-19 crisis, understanding trauma and its impacts on our students, staff, and families is critical to planning for reopening schools.

Research shows that over 65% of our students have experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) category. These adverse experiences can have a broad range of potential impacts on learning and behavior, including language and memory issues and behavioral manifestations that include dysregulation as well as overly regulated behavior. Understanding the impacts of traumatic experience provides educators a fuller view of  their students’ learning and behavior, and helps shift educator mindset from one of  demanding, blaming, and punitive interactions to understanding, inquiry, and skill development. This reframing has a significant impact on how we plan for our reopening.

A trauma-sensitive reopening:

  • Prioritizes student connection with the school community
  • Addresses the social-emotional needs of students and families before academics
  • Develops needed protocols not only for physical and emotional safety, but responds to a variety of COVID-related issues

Principle 3: Reflecting and Developing an Action Plan

Trauma-sensitive schools help support student success by engaging in a planning process based on their identified needs, determined by reviewing school-specific information and data. This process is driven by issues that are important to the school community, and informs development of action plans. Such plans are within the school’s capacity to effect and are guided by trauma-sensitive norms and values (whole child, student connection to the school community, students feeling safe/valued, working together as a community to anticipate issues, and being innovative).  

Begin by gathering information from staff, students, and families via online surveys to understand the urgencies felt by the core stakeholders in the school community. Using these data, schools can develop re-entry plans that include action steps to address the identified urgencies. Also using local, state, and national recommendations, trauma-sensitive schools can develop a comprehensive reopening plan that incorporates local concerns and needs.

A trauma-sensitive action plan:

  • Empowers school/district leadership teams to attend to the social-emotional health of the school community
  • Designs initiatives that are tailored to specific school-based needs
  • Implements plans that are focused and feasible
"Never underestimate the therapeutic impact of a caring teacher."
Bruce D. Perry, Psychiatrist, Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas

Principle 4: Practicing Self-Care

Teaching can be a highly stressful occupation. In addition to the dynamic nature of classrooms and students, educators also may face the secondary trauma associated with having close relationships with their students and often bearing witness to their experiences. The COVID-19 crisis has added a significant layer of stress and uncertainty to every educator.

First, student and family stressors have increased significantly, raising the overall stress level in  the school—especially when combined with the loss of our usual community connections. Additionally, concerns for family members, our own health and risk factors, online instruction, and the uncertainties of the next school year are layered on top of an already stressful occupation. Schoolwide awareness and discussion of these issues are important to both validate staff feelings and allow for open discussion of the impacts of secondary trauma and COVID-related stressors.

Schools might consider providing professional development and support for educator self-awareness and self-care, to empower educators to develop sustainable school/classroom communities where they can be adaptable and responsive to student needs.

To keep educator stress levels manageable, schools can:

  • Recognize the reality of secondary trauma and acknowledge its effects
  • Provide staff with professional development on self-care
  • Devote resources to activities that promote staff well-being 

With connectedness, understanding, empathy, and careful and responsive planning, we can provide both students and educators with a safe, trauma-sensitive environment when schools finally reopen.

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