We desire to help our learners through their transformation into who God has created them to be. When dealing with anxiety and trauma, our role in this transformation is to learn how to care for students, assist them in their healing and, in so doing, create a space for them to simply be children. As we face new threats of illness and disruption across the globe, teachers are in a unique position to guide their students from fear to faith.
How do we do that? You have probably heard of the “trauma-informed approach” or “trauma-informed care”. While not all children have or will experience trauma, this framework gives everyone the tools to communicate better, to empathize more with each other, and to recognize harmful situations. In the weeks and months to come, the classroom, whether online or in person, will be a critical place for learners to process and understand what is happening in the world because of this pandemic.
One of the first ways educators—and parents—can assist their learners is knowing how trauma can present itself. The Child Mind Institute in New York mentions:
- Problems with sleeping (too much or too little)
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Anger (sudden or unexplained irritability)
- Attention (trouble focussing on projects, class and private conversations, or needing more attention)
- Anxiety (constant worry, separation anxiety from parents, reliving traumatic event, easily startled by noise)
Chronic stress or trauma can greatly hinder the ability to learn, so be patient and compassionate. Identifying these presentations of trauma is the first step. From here, your instinct to comfort and reassure is the next step to take. A few practical examples are:
- Acknowledging the event: whether it was a loss (an evacuated teacher or friend) or a specific event (closing the school abruptly), create a space for discussing this with your students and allow them to express their feelings.
- Taking time to talk: the classroom will be one of the most important places for students to talk and grieve. They know you and being with you is comforting. Studies have demonstrated that when adults listen to children it can be more effective than saying the right things.
- Encouraging curiosity: model asking questions to your students.
- Being mindful of safety: remind them about safety measures, prepare them for fire drills, leave the door ajar, tell them in advance if there will be noise.
- Being predictable: return to your routine, or if necessary, create a new one. If you can, post the routine so students can know what is coming next. Structure will comfort them. Also be prepared to be flexible within the routine.
If you are moving into an online teaching experience because of COVID-19, these strategies can still be applied. Additionally, you can encourage your students virtually by:
- Referencing how students are feeling: assign reflection homework. This could be an art piece, journal entry, photography, etc.
- Giving students agency: ask students to help with designing the schedule and brainstorm new “class rules” with them.
- Reducing media exposure: create a challenge with a prize for students who only use devices a certain amount per day (parents could keep them accountable).
- Providing alternative assessment: this could be a great time to get creative with projects instead of traditional homework. Students could conduct phone interviews with a family member, presentations in the form of webinars or movies, etc. Studies show integrating the expressive therapies (art, music, drama) transforms the learning and healing experience.
- Creating opportunities for expression: such as a blog or online platform where students can post daily activities.
- Integrating conversations about faith: during a crisis, students will naturally be asking big questions. You can use this time to be open about God and His promises, while modelling to them what it looks like to choose faith over fear. If you are able, begin your virtual classes with a short devotional and leave room for discussion.
A Note about You:
In the midst of crisis or trauma, educators often ignore their own needs in order to care for their students. This puts them at risk of having vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue or burnout. Make sure you are taking care of yourself and not depleting your own well. The deeper your well, the more you have to give to your students. Dr. Wilbur summarizes ways to cope with The ABC’s of Self Care:
Awareness – be attuned to one’s own needs, limits, and emotions.
Balance – balance between work, rest, and play.
Connection – connect to oneself, to others, and something larger.
It’s okay if you do not know what to do or do not have the answers during this unprecedented time. All we can do is point our students to Jesus, help them be who they were created to be, and learn from and with them in the process.
Katy Maria Shimp
TEFOL Education Specialist
TeachBeyond, Beyond Borders
 “Signs of Trauma in Children.” Child Mind Institute, childmind.org/article/signs-trauma-children/. Koplewicz, Harold S., and Child Mind Institute. “A Teacher’s Role in Dealing with Tragedy: Traumatic Events.” Child Mind Institute, childmind.org/article/teachers-role-tragedy-strikes/. Jehlen, A. “Dance of the trapezoid: Educators use the power of the arts to teach math and science”. NEA Today Magazine. 2008, www.nea.org/archive/4129.htm; The New York State Education Department, Office of Bilingual Education and Foreign Language Studies. “Art as a tool for teachers of English language learners”. Albany, NY: The University of the State of New York. 2008, steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/media/users/nbm3/art_tool.pdf.  Wilbur, Amea. Trauma and Language Learning. March, 2020. TESL Canada. https://zoom.us/j/325093143?pwd=aWZJeE1oQzcxcHNvZ2FucWM1ZUw4dz09. PowerPoint Presentation.
Photo Credits: Empty Street. via Shutterstock. Girl. via Shutterstock. Classroom. via Shutterstock.
- Teacher, Interrupted: Leaning into Social-Emotional Learning Amid the COVID-19 Crisis https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-03-18-teacher-interrupted-leaning-into-social-emotional-learning-amid-the-covid-19-crisis
- Coronavirus Has Led to a Rush of Online Teaching. Here’s Some Advice for Newly Remote Instructors https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-03-11-coronavirus-has-led-to-a-rush-of-online-teaching-here-s-some-advice-for-newly-remote-instructors
- The ABC’S of Self-Care and Stress Reduction https://www.hartsteinpsychological.com/abcs-of-self-care-stress-reduction
After obtaining her MA in TTESOL, Katy and her husband joined TeachBeyond and developed a language program in Brasilia, Brazil. They are now based in Winnipeg, Canada, where Katy works remotely with Beyond Borders as the TESOL Education Specialist.