How to Help A Student Experiencing Trauma: The Dos and Don’Ts

Students spend a large chunk of their day-to-day lives in schools. Some of them are exposed to traumatic events in life, not only affecting their daily lives, but also academic progress.  According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the definition of trauma is as follows:

A traumatic event is one that threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others and also causes horror, terror, or helplessness at the time it occurs. Traumatic events include sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, community and school violence, medical trauma, motor vehicle accidents, acts of terrorism, war experiences, natural and human-made disasters, suicides, and other traumatic losses.

The impacts of experiencing such trauma are often far-reaching and deeply-rooted. It can interfere with a student’s ability to absorb information and do well in school. In addition, it can also make it difficult for students to maintain relationships with their peers and teachers alike.

For this reason, teachers must play a vital role in being supportive to students suffering from the impacts of trauma. Here are the dos and don’ts of helping a student cope with trauma.

What Teachers can do to help?

Students spend a significant amount of their days inside the four walls of a classroom. If a student is dealing with the impacts of trauma, certain signs and symptoms may begin to present themselves here. Teachers have a responsibility to ensure that all the students in their class are participating in and benefiting from the learning process. A student suffering from trauma may not be keeping pace with the rest of the students in the class.

Here are some of the things that a teacher can do to help these students:

1. Be there for the student

One of the most effective ways to help a student cope with trauma is to be there for them. This means lending a compassionate ear and allowing them to talk about everything that they may be experiencing. Let the student know that if they ever need to talk to you, you are available to them.

2. Acknowledge their suffering in a compassionate way

For students who have been through trauma, it is important that you recognize the suffering that they are experiencing. This doesn’t mean acknowledging in front of the entire class the event which may have triggered the trauma. Instead, it means that you should take the time out to speak to them privately and offer your support and acknowledgment of their struggle.

3. Offer a safe space

At certain times, being in a classroom surrounded by other people may become too overwhelming for the student who is suffering. One of the most effective ways to help students in these cases is to offer them a safe place. This could be somewhere they could retreat to for a few minutes to recompose themselves or be alone for a while. Clearly identify a safe space and offer it to the student for their use. That way, if you need to check up on the student you’ll also know where they are.

4. Stay in rapport with counselors and the students’ family

If a student is suffering to the degree that it is having an adverse affect on their life, school counselors and the family of the student should be made aware of what is happening. This extended support system needs to be briefed about what the student is experiencing in the classroom, where they are struggling, and if they are making any progress.

What teacher’s should not do?

 In cases where a student is suffering from trauma, there are certain things that a teacher should refrain from doing. These things could further alienate the student or even make matters worse.

1. Don’t try to speed up the process

You might think you’re being helpful by pushing a student to deal with their trauma quickly but you’ll probably just end up making things worse. Remember, everyone deals with things differently and everyone takes their own time in dealing with the trauma they are suffering from. Don’t make any effort to ‘quicken’ the process; it might just end up taking that student longer to recover.

2. Don’t make their suffering public

An individual who is suffering doesn’t want their pain to be aired to everyone around them. As a teacher, make sure you don’t publicly acknowledge the trauma the student is dealing with and shine a spotlight on their feelings. This will end up making them self-conscious and will likely push them to become more reclusive.

3. Don’t force students to share their feelings

Make yourself open to a student who is suffering, but don’t force them to share their feelings. Remember, you want them to feel safe and comfortable talking to you about what they are dealing with. Forcing them to open up will lead them to withdraw and won’t accomplish anything.

4. Don’t trivialize their feelings

One of the most detrimental things you can do to someone who is suffering is downplay their feelings and trivialize what they are experiencing. Don’t say things like ‘It’ll all get better soon’ or ‘there are others who have it so much worse than you’. If a student opens up to you, listen compassionately and offer your support where you can. Do not for a second be dismissive about what they are experiencing.

Teachers should do their best to help those students who are trying to cope with trauma. Oftentimes, trauma can have a severely negative impact on a student’s performance in school and their relationship with those around them. To mitigate the harmful effects of these experiences, teachers can do a number of things to help. They should also tread carefully and avoid doing certain things to ensure that they don’t make things worse.


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