4 key pillars of a trauma-informed approach during COVID-19

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has been traumatic for children and adults alike. District and school staff member must remain especially diligent in being aware of and implementing strategies that help mitigate trauma.

A trauma-informed approach means teachers, administrators, staff, students and families recognize the behavioral, emotional, relational and academic impact of trauma, and address the impact through developing skills and providing specific trauma-informed supports.

There are four key pillars that guide educators in following a trauma-informed approach: focusing on wellness, building relationships, providing predictability and addressing students’ regulation deficits.

This post will explore the impact of trauma, provide an overview of each pillar and provide strategies for incorporating trauma-informed practices in remote, hybrid and in-person classrooms.

The impact of trauma: What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

In the mid 90’s, Dr. Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda studied over 17,000 adults in an effort to understand more about stressful or traumatic childhood experiences, like neglect, abuse and family turmoil. They called these types of events “Adverse Childhood Experiences”, or ACEs.

There are three major categories of ACEs:

1. Abuse
a. Physical abuse
b. Emotional abuse
c. Sexual abuse

2. Neglect
a. Physical neglect
b. Emotional neglect

3. Household dysfunction
a. Family mental illness
b. Incarcerated household member
c. Witnessing domestic violence
d. Parental separation or divorce
e. Substance abuse in household

ACEs are extremely common and tend to occur in clusters, meaning most people don’t experience just one type of ACE. The number of different ACEs a person experiences in childhood increases the risk for health, social and behavioral problems throughout their life, such as depression, substance abuse, physical health and diseases and developmental delays.

Before COVID-19, nearly half of kids had three or more ACEs, and that number has only increased since the pandemic started. Given the widespread impact of ACEs, it’s important that school staff are equipped to take care of their students while also being able to take care of themselves.

Pillar #1: Focus on educator wellness: Only a well-regulated adult can help a student regulate. Working with students who have experienced trauma can be stressful, especially for educators who have also experienced ACEs.

Consider some of the potential sources of stress that school faculty and staff face:

• Regularly interacting with students who exhibit challenging behaviors.
• Hearing about abuse and neglect students have experienced.
• Worrying about a student’s safety or future.
• Feeling responsible for (or powerless) to help a student.
• Trying to engage all students in distance learning

And, now that we’re all dealing with challenges and uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become all the more critical that educators learn about and engage in self-care.

Self-care practices for educators and staff:

• Be aware of your own trauma and the potential impact that working with students who have experienced trauma can have on you.

• Give yourself permission to care for your mind, body and spirit in ways that work for you.

• Get social support from friends, family or colleagues.

• Connect with yourself through self-reflection and engage in mindfulness practices.

Pillar #2: Build relationships: Strong relationships build trust.

A quote from Education Week’s Arianna Prothero sums it up best: “This can’t be emphasized enough: Strong relationships will be essential to students’ academic success and well-being this coming school year.”