Data from the National Survey of Students’ Health (NSCH) indicates that almost half of the students in the United States have experienced one or more forms of serious trauma, such as poverty, homelessness, or abuse and neglect. This means that an estimated 35,000,00 students, from infancy through age 17 are at risk for not only school failure, but for a number of social-emotional and physical complications (e.g., PTSD, heart disease, etc.) that may have life-long consequences to their health and well-being. The effect of COVID-19 has surely increased the percentage of young people who are experiencing trauma. And while people of all races and socioeconomic statuses have been affected by COVID-19, poor communities of color have been disproportionately impacted, adding an additional level of trauma to a population already traumatized by systemic racism.
Teachers who are feeling overburdened by the changes in education (e.g., safety protocols, virtual teaching, concerns for their own health), must also consider how to best support the growing number of students who have experienced trauma. Additionally, some of the recommendations for supporting students in trauma (e.g., additional economic resources, steps to reduce aggression and violence in the community) are often outside of teachers’ control. Fortunately, teachers already have access to a key tool for supporting students - their moment to moment interactions with their students.
A wealth of research shows that interactions between teachers and students play a critical role in students' social and academic development (Curby, et al., 2009; Gosse, McGinty, Mashburn, Hoffman, & Pianta,2014; Howes et al., 2004; Mashburn, et al., 2008; Pianta, et al., 2005; Ponitz, Rimm-Kaufman, Grimm, & Curby, 2009). The Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) is a validated observational tool that measures the quality of teacher-child interactions and is widely used across the United States to help focus on, measure and improve the interactions that matter most for supporting students’ learning and development. The CLASS framework organizes effective interactions into three overarching domains: Emotional Support, Classroom Organization, and Instructional Support. Emotional Support examines what teachers do to develop warm, supportive relationships with students, while Classroom Organization looks at how teachers manage students' time, attention, and behavior in the classroom. Finally, Instructional Support focuses on interactions that promote higher-order thinking skills and language development. While all three types of interactions are important, students who have experienced trauma will benefit the most from high levels of Emotional Support and Classroom Organization. Instructional Support is difficult in the absence of the first two, especially when a child is experiencing trauma.
For those of you who are not CLASS-savvy, there are three ways to think about the types of interactions that teachers should focus on right now to support students experiencing trauma: relationships, responsiveness, and routines. Addressing these three areas of focus will help teachers support students' social and emotional learning both now and in the long term.
Here are some key strategies that teachers can implement throughout the day to support students experiencing trauma.
Three studies that illustrate the impact of effective interactions on students' social and emotional well-being are described below.
Bridging Mental Health and Education in Urban Schools (BRIDGE) is an innovative study that used existing mental health professionals to deliver a relationship-based coaching and consultation program in high poverty, urban elementary schools. Researchers were interested in learning whether or not coaching and consultation that focused on the Emotional Support and Classroom Organization domains of CLASS would impact classroom interactions and students' aggressive behavior. Although BRIDGE did not detect changes in students' aggressive behavior, after four months of coaching, teachers reported more closeness with students. In addition, students in BRIDGE classrooms had higher academic self-concept and those who displayed aggressive behaviors were less likely to be victimized by their peers (Cappella, et al., 2012).
A second study examined the effects of Banking Time (Pianta & Hamre, 2001), an attachment-based intervention, on preschool-aged students' externalizing behavior, and the quality of teacher-student interactions (Williford, et al., 2017). During a Banking Time session, teachers meet with students for 10-15 minutes of child-directed play. Rather than attempting to teach something, teachers sit back and observe students' play and their observed emotions. Teachers narrate students' emotions, while also developing relational themes (e.g., “You look like you’re frustrated. I can be a helper”) as a means to help students see the teacher as a source of support. These sessions took place 2-3 times a week for a period of seven weeks. At the end of the study, teachers reported a significant reduction in students' externalizing behaviors, while also displaying a decrease in negative interactions with the students. Authors hypothesize that the intervention may disrupt the often negative cycle of interactions that occur between teachers and students when students engage in challenging behaviors. These findings are particularly salient in light of research showing that unconscious bias can negatively influence how teachers view their students (Gilliam, Maupin, Reyes, Accavitti, & Shic, 2016). When teachers take the time to get to know their students, they are more likely to change their perceptions of the student, which can ultimately lead to positive changes in the teacher-student relationship.
Teacher-child interactions are not only beneficial for students' emotional state but may also contribute to students' physiological well-being and lower levels of stress. Hatfield and colleagues (2013) examined the impact of effective interactions on the stress hormone, cortisol, in children who attended full-day child care. Results showed that children who attended child care classrooms with higher levels of Emotional Support, had an overall decrease in cortisol levels across the day, rather than the typical end-of-day increase in cortisol levels seen in so many children who attend full-day child care (Hatfield, Hestenes, Kintner-Duffy, & O’Brien, 2013). Lower levels of stress allow students to be more available for instruction.
There are a number of approaches that teachers can use to support students who have experienced high levels of trauma, many of which require purchasing additional curricula or training. One strategy that teachers can use is something that they are already naturally doing with students - interacting in positive and supportive ways.
The time has come for hard conversations.
That’s the feedback we have been receiving from educators across the country. There are plenty of tough conversations educators are trained, taught, or feel equipped to handle with children and families - gently bringing up a developmental concern, facilitating a disagreement between students, or explaining what happened with the classroom goldfish are all part of a day in the life. But in the last year, since the killing of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, educators are increasingly asking for help in communicating more comfortably with young children about diversity and difference.
I was supposed to be an architect, instead I was a teacher of young children; it felt like my calling.
When I started my coursework, they tasked me with visiting multiple classrooms. It overwhelmed me when in some classrooms, children were crying, teachers were frustrated, and no one seemed to enjoy the day. I thought I had made a mistake. Thankfully, I had a professor who inspired me to continue. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the behaviors I observed in both children and teachers, the professor charged me to uncover the root of those behaviors.
And so, my journey to support social-emotional development began.
Every state, every district, every school, every teacher faced decisions that they had never anticipated in the last academic year. As the end of the 2020-2021 school year approaches, it’s time to reflect on those decisions, learn from others, and prepare for the fall ahead.