College of Education; Research

Trauma in the classroom: how educators should approach it and what parents and students should expect from schools


Rachelle Savitz
Rachelle Savitz serves as assistant professor in the the education and human development department in Clemson’s College of Education.

CLEMSON — When students arrive at school, they don’t check their trauma at the door or ignore it. Considering the effect trauma can have on student learning, teachers can’t choose to ignore it, either. Trauma leads to learning problems, lower grades, suspensions, expulsions and even long-term health problems.

Teachers are increasingly expected to identify and work with issues students bring to school, and based on related statistics, they need to be ready to address trauma in the classroom for the sake of student learning and well-being. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than two thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by age 16. These include psychological, physical or sexual abuse; community or school violence; domestic violence; assault; or the sudden or violent loss of a loved one.

Is student trauma an important issue for educators?

Rachelle Savitz, assistant professor at Clemson University, said gaining the tools to address trauma among students should be a high priority for educators. Luckily, teachers have resources to which they can turn in order to learn best practices in addressing trauma in the classroom.

One of them is a new book, “Teaching Hope and Resilience for Students Experiencing Trauma,” which makes the case for the need and responsibility of schools to equip students with tools to learn despite trauma in their lives. The book is co-authored by Savitz and Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey of San Diego State University.

Savitz said that teachers prove to be the most effective agents of change in schools because of the relationships they establish with students.

“These are significant issues and often they can only be truly, meaningfully addressed at schools on a classroom level,” Savitz said. “There are certainly school-wide policies that can be very impactful, but it takes each and every teacher engaging with students to really make a difference.”

What would you say is a vital step for teachers trying to address trauma in their classrooms?

Teaching Hope and Resilience for Students Experiencing Trauma
Savitz and co-authors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey collaborated on “Teaching Hope and Resilience for Students Experiencing Trauma.”

The most important step may well be the first, which is knowing that the trauma exists at all. Savitz said a teacher should first establish a good relationship with students so they are aware of each student’s situation. If that relationship exists, the student will be more likely to speak up and let teachers know what’s going on.

Savitz said she has seen this work firsthand during her time as an intensive reading teacher in a school in the Southeast. Because of the surrounding area, many students were affected by gang violence and drugs, so Savitz made it clear to them that she could be a source of help at any time. She had no issue with students reaching her via mobile phone.

One of her students was the victim of ongoing bullying and she reached out to Savitz with a troubling text message one morning. When Savitz called her to follow up on the text, she wouldn’t answer. Savitz and school administrators eventually reached her mother and called for any ambulance just to be safe.

“She felt her only way out was to end her life, but the ambulance arrived just in time to save her,” Savitz said. “I have to think that if we had not gotten to know one another and establish that relationship, she never would have texted me.”

How can teachers address trauma with students in a practical way that is incorporated into instruction?

Savitz said there are instructional techniques in all grade levels and subject areas that teachers can incorporate to start normalizing traumatic experiences. Instead of carving out class time to have a clumsy, blanket discussion about trauma, Savitz said educators can select course material that would spur discussion of trauma. In the case of literacy, a teacher can select a story featuring a character undergoing the loss of a parent or grandparent, for example.

“In this case, you’re not approaching the subject bluntly, but you’re allowing students to assign meaning to this character or story; they can then discuss this trauma through the character’s eyes,” Savitz said. “This allows you to bring potentially sensitive material into a classroom while meeting educational standards.”

What if the subject is math or science? Does that make this task more difficult?

Not necessarily, according to Savitz. She said the key may be supplemental material if the curriculum is rigid and largely set. Project-based and inquiry-based learning often go far beyond information delivery and it increases student curiosity.

“If you’re presenting an engineering problem, you could ask students to build an accessibility ramp with supplemental text on why it’s being built,” Savitz said. “It becomes about more than just a math problem with one solution when a backstory is built in.”

How does a teacher’s role change when the entire class shares in the same trauma, as in the case of school shooting?

When teachers and students return from an event such as a school shooting or the accidental death or suicide of a classmate, Savitz said they are still beholden to the same standards as before, albeit with a tragic elephant in the room. She said teachers should prioritize rebuilding a sense of safety for students by stepping back and giving them as much space and as much time as they need to discuss any emotions around the event.

“I have colleagues who’ve been through this situation, and it helps to meet as an entire school and then again on the classroom level,” Savitz said. “I see it as a perfect time for inquiry, to let the students ask and then find answers to those questions through research. The best thing a teacher can do is let them have the floor and act as a facilitator for discussion.”

Savitz said that the teacher’s ability to “read the room” is crucial in this situation, but the goal should be to slowly pull them back into the curriculum without getting fixated on the event. She does specify that when a student is truly struggling to concentrate or get back into the rhythm of the class, there is a point when they should be referred to a school counselor or mental health professional.

How should parents and students expect schools as a whole to respond?

As far as school-wide policies and professional development for educators, Savitz said school administrators — superintendents, principals and vice principals — should always lead the way when it comes to providing the tools and training for teachers dealing with students who’ve suffered trauma.

An open dialogue between teachers and administrators is just as important, according to Savitz. If a teacher is nervous about talking about discrimination or bullying, they shouldn’t be hesitant to approach school leadership to gain those skills.

“Schools can provide many different types of interventions or professional development classes, but the most important thing is that these are ongoing,” Savitz said. “Educators won’t get better at addressing trauma in the classroom after hearing from one speaker during a single meeting.”

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