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Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic

Trauma-informed strategies to support students’ transition back to school in the COVID era
By Lauren Amos

Trauma-informed strategies to support students’ transition back to school in the COVID era

With the 2019–2020 school year in the rearview mirror, school leaders and staff have an opportunity to shift some of their attention from crisis response to crisis recovery. For many students, especially the most vulnerable such as those experiencing chronic homelessness and food insecurity, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a considerable social and emotional toll. From grieving the passing of loved ones to dealing with escalating incidences of domestic violence and economic recession, many students and staff will return to school in the fall with trauma that can adversely affect their teaching and learning.

At REL Mid-Atlantic, we're committed to helping improve teaching, learning, and school leadership. To help educators use trauma-informed strategies to address the unprecedented impact COVID-19 has had on school communities nationwide, we've distilled guidance released by federal agencies, national professional associations, and federally funded research collaboratives and technical assistance centers such as the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center, National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and the National Association of School Psychologists. To help set priorities before schools reopen their doors in the coming weeks, these resources suggest that responding to COVID-19-related trauma will warrant an iterative strategy that involves several steps:

  1. Assessing the mental health, physical health, and socioemotional learning supports students will likely need upon their return to school
  2. Planning a trauma-informed response to address these needs by identifying resources, policies, practices, and procedures staff will require to facilitate a positive, compassionate, and informed response
  3. Building capacity of school staff to carry out the plan by identifying training opportunities and forming study teams on priority topics
  4. Implementing the plan
  5. Reassessing the extent to which needs are being met, how they might have changed, and whether new needs have emerged; factors that facilitate or present barriers to meeting these needs must also be considered so the plan can be revised

Read our fact sheet to learn how school staff can begin to carry out the first three stages now before school resumes. To develop and execute a trauma-informed plan that is representative of the school community, culturally responsive, and equitable, schools should think broadly as they determine who to engage in this process. We offer two considerations:

  • Forming crisis response, planning, and study teams. All adults that students interact with influence the overall health of the school community. Teams should be diverse and include administrators, instructional staff, and noninstructional staff such as school resource officers, school nurses, athletic coaches, and cafeteria personnel. Students and community members should also be included to the extent possible. Some formal and informal personnel who would normally lead efforts such as this might not have the mental or emotional bandwidth necessary under the circumstances. For this reason, consider allowing staff to self-nominate. You could find untapped talent, eager and energized to contribute, with unique and underutilized knowledge and trusting relationships with students, school staff, and the larger community.
  • Gathering student input. When involving students, seek diverse perspectives across grades, demographic groups, and social groups. Welcome students to self-nominate their interest in participating and select students randomly from the nominations. To demonstrate that their voice is valued, reach out to individual students who tend to be less vocal or disconnected from school life to schedule conversations—one on one or with a friend of their choosing—in which they might be more comfortable. At the high school level, consider preparing students to conduct some of these focus groups themselves to encourage them to share feedback that they might not feel comfortable expressing with staff.

Recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic will be a long-term process. School administrators, classroom teachers, specialists, noninstructional staff, students, their families, and the larger community all have a role to play as schools reopen. Sharing the responsibility for creating and sustaining a trauma-informed school culture will help all school members navigate the uncertain road ahead.