By Dr. Tommy Wells and Regan Davis
For 12 months, most students have experienced education in a remote setting, whether part or full time. The arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine holds out the promise that in-person learning will resume by the fall; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has offered guidelines for a safe return even before then. But whenever students return to the classroom, they will do so having shared a traumatic experience.
This is sure to pose unexpected challenges both for students and for educators. In particular, students may have difficulty transitioning back to in-person learning after being remote, and often isolated, at home for most of the school year.
Returning to school following a long bout of virtual learning will require a shift to the function of classrooms. Educators need to prioritize social and emotional skills.
Childhood trauma is associated with barriers to school achievement, as traumatic stress can disrupt social, emotional, cognitive and brain development. Specifically, childhood trauma can adversely impact students’ self-regulation and executive functioning skills—organization, comprehension and memorization, for example. This has negative consequences for learning, as shared by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. With current and future circumstances presenting unprecedented obstacles, it is important for teachers to make students’ trauma and healing a priority above all else, including the pressure for academic success.
Returning to school following a long bout of virtual learning will require a shift to the function of classrooms. While focusing on data and using it to drive instruction must be a focus, teachers need to understand that data will, and should, look different. Educators need to prioritize social and emotional skills within their trauma-informed practices in the classroom and pair those with academics to create an environment that best serves students.
As described in Education Week last year, “regulating emotions, managing stress, empathizing with others, and maintaining relationships—all social-emotional skills—will be key to helping students overcome the trauma and challenges brought on by the pandemic so that they are in a state of mind to learn come fall.”
To comprehend academic content, both students and educators must first begin to heal from the trauma brought on by COVID-19, and teachers can facilitate students’ recovery by providing support both inside and outside the classroom. As teachers adapt to become more trauma-informed, they could consider the following elements:
Focus on building relationships that are rooted in safety and connection. Teachers should focus on activities that build relationships, such as holding community circles. Community circles can provide a safe space for students while promoting respect, empathy and communication skills.
Establish classroom norms and routines in concert with students that promote predictability. Teachers can engage students in developing classroom rules that focus on safety, respect and responsibility while ensuring that these rules align with schoolwide policies. Classroom rules, along with a daily agenda and a visual timer, can be posted as reminders for students. Visual reminders are particularly helpful for transitioning between activities, which can be challenging for students who have experienced trauma.
Teach social and emotional skills. Whether through an established curriculum or teacher-created lessons, students benefit from direct instruction in social and emotional skills, such as lessons on empathy, emotional regulation and interpersonal skills. Teachers can also role-play scenarios for self-regulation and problem solving. For further information, educators should review the resources provided by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) at https://casel.org/.
Be visible outside the classroom. Educators should actively monitor the halls during class transitions or join classes for lunch. Interacting with students in informal settings can further strengthen relationships.
Minimize exclusionary discipline practices. Employ practices that keep students in school, such as restorative discipline practices that focus on repairing relationships between peers or staff. For additional information, educators could review resources provided by the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative.
Set boundaries between work and personal time. Teachers can maintain office hours for communication with staff, students and families that limit working in the evenings and on weekends.
Establish meaningful routines, such as mindfulness, journaling or disconnecting from technology. Educators can also focus on monitoring their diet and levels of hydration, finding sustainable exercise and trying strategies to improve sleep. More resources can be accessed through Panorama Education.
As schools prepare for an in-person return to learning, the key point to remember is that intentional and meaningful relationships must be established with students. After the unpredictability of the last year, many may experience a lack of trust, hyperactivity or dissociation, among numerous other reactions.
As Jessica Minahan, a licensed and board-certified behavior analyst, special educator and school consultant, wrote in 2019, “Students can’t learn unless they feel safe. When it comes to student trauma, there is much that is beyond educators’ power, but there is also a great deal they can do to build a supportive and sensitive environment where students feel safe, comfortable, take risks, learn and even heal.”
When educators find ways to connect with and support students, they begin the process of healing, which so many of our students will need when returning to in-person learning.
Dr. Tommy Wells is an assistant professor in the Annsley Frazier Thornton School of Education at Bellarmine whose research interests include education policy, school leadership, and trauma-informed practices. His current courses include Trauma-informed Classrooms, Creating Trauma-informed Schools, and Research Methodology for School Leaders.