Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
July 11, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 9

The Right Mindset for Responding to Student Trauma

author avatar
author avatar
Students are struggling with health and wellness like never before. Creating a culture of safety centered around relationships can help.
School CultureLeadership
Illustration of 6 human silhouettes with their arms entwined
Credit: ONELINESTOCK.COM / SHUTTERSTOCK
"We know that childhood trauma has become an epidemic. No one is immune."
We wrote these words back in 2016, in our book Fostering Resilient Learners (p. 23). Even three years prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, we were seeing an uptick in student and staff struggles in schools. Excessive demands and lack of resources, coupled with outside stressors and traumatic experiences, had taken a toll on everyone's mental health and well-being.
The pandemic's catastrophic effects—deaths, school closures, social isolation, hotly debated health measures and mandates, financial insecurity, and more—have only worsened the situation. According to the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Report of youth surveyed in the first half of 2021, more than 2 in 5 teens reported feeling "persistently sad or hopeless," and nearly 20 percent had "seriously considered committing suicide" (Jones et al., 2022). It's no wonder that last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children's Hospital Association collaboratively declared a "national state of emergency in children's mental health" (2021).
Our kids are struggling. A lot. These concerns present educators with an urgent question: Are we doing right by our youth?

The Struggle Is Real

As we know through the headlines and our personal experiences, it's not just students who are struggling. Education professionals, too, are overwhelmed and exhausted. In our work with schools, we hear concerns about student attendance, student behaviors, and lack of empathy, as well as trouble reconnecting with students. Many educators are feeling immense pressure to try to cram three years of schooling into one and to manage the public's fear of "learning loss"—all while attempting to manage their own health risks and emotional difficulties.
In short, many of us often feel at a loss now for how to move forward. There was no playbook for how to operate in education during a pandemic. Many districts independently made choices they felt were in the best interest of their communities—solutions which looked vastly different from state to state, county to county, district to district. That lack of predictability and consistency significantly affected educators' ability to take care of themselves and to figure out what students need.
If there were ever a time to truly focus on the social-emotional well-being of our youth, the time is now. We believe in the power of bringing the human element back to the forefront of education: building a safe environment, tending to relationships, and shifting our mindsets toward meaningful interactions with the children under our care.

A Culture of Safety

There is good news hidden on the B-side of the CDC survey results. According to the data, students who felt close to people at their school had dramatically lower prevalence of poor mental health (a 37-percent reduction), fewer persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness (a 33-percent reduction), and fewer reports of attempted suicide (a 51-percent reduction) (Jones et al., 2022). Quite simply, those with strong relationships at school developed resilience to help them withstand stressors. This validates what we already know: Relationships matter in schools. A lot.

Even in the most challenging and difficult of times, our mindsets can affect the outcomes.

Author Image

The quality of teacher-student relationships has been repeatedly proven to have a key impact on overall academic, social, and emotional outcomes (Košir & Tement, 2014). As Rita Pierson phrased it in her iconic 2013 TED Talk, "Kids don't learn from people they don't like."
If we know that relationships and connections make an enormous difference in our students' well-being, what can we do to ensure that every child we interact with hears the message that they are valued, important, capable, and loved? All of the students we serve should feel that security when they cross over our thresholds.
In our book Relationship, Responsibility, and Regulation (Hall & Souers, 2018), we refer to creating a "Culture of Safety," an environment that is physically and emotionally safe, predictable, and consistent. The relational connections that are so central to supporting students' well-being cannot take place without this.
A Culture of Safety is a setting that weaves together these three characteristics:
  1. Safety. Our students need to experience both physical and emotional safety, a sense of freedom from danger—real and perceived—in order to settle into the classroom and become learning-ready. From adequately supervising students and vigilantly locking hazardous material away from reach, to enthusiastically celebrating our differences, checking in with our students on a regular basis, and openly communicating about how we are doing, educators can emphasize safety.
  2. Predictability. Our students must have routines, conditions, and schedules that allow them to know what's coming up next. This alleviates the worry that accompanies the unknown. We can do this by establishing community agreements, posting the class agenda, and preparing students for changes in advance.
  3. Consistency. Our students must be immersed in settings that are consistent, equitable, and fair in order to meet our expectations for behavior, academics, and social growth. We can do this by providing clear expectations, highlighting the purpose for learning, and encouraging a growth mindset.

Mindsets in Service of Healing

Creating cultures of safety and connection for students also depends on our own ways of responding to challenges. Building relationships starts with us, the adults. According to psychologist Susan David, our self-stories—the way we manage our everyday thoughts and emotions—are powerful influences on how we approach situations (2016). Our mindsets and our ability to self-regulate matter. What we can control when we walk into an experience with another is the belief set we hold as we engage: our mannerisms, our implicit and explicit messages, and our words. When we enter with positive intent and a desire for solutions—and when students know that someone cares and they have opportunities to succeed, our (and their) successes will be more likely. Conversely, if we enter those interactions with a negative mindset, dysregulation, and the belief that nothing will help, odds are we will contribute to the problem, not the solution.
Imagine you are at the front of a classroom, and some students are chatting away and off-task as you start the lesson. Regardless of how many times you try to get students' attention, the students continue to drift back toward talking. Think about the difference in how the following reflections might end up, based on two different mindsets:

Mindset A:

"This class is out of control. I don't know how much more of this I can take. No one listens and no one cares about the content. How am I supposed to catch students up?"

Mindset B:

"This has been a really challenging transition back to in-person teaching. It is obvious how much these students have missed interacting, but their social development is lacking. I need to find a way to help them be productive learners and still have time to chat. I am going to start the class with a chance for us to connect and see how things are going before I jump into the content."
Even in the most challenging and difficult of times, our mindsets can affect the outcomes. When we're struggling with a student, a parent, a team, a colleague, a supervisor, or even a community stressor, it's important to become aware of our mindsets and self-talk so we can engage in a more positive manner. For example, we can ask ourselves these questions:
  • Am I open to the possibility that this situation will get better, or am I stuck on the problem?
  • What is about to drive my behavior? What am I trying to accomplish?
  • Am I accessing my growth mindset, or am I closing myself off to solutions?
  • What is the goal of this interaction? In the best-case scenario, what would happen as a result?
When those with whom we are struggling see us as motivated to repair and heal, it sends a message to them that we want better. For us to have difficult conversations with others, we need to start by having some hard conversations with ourselves. This will equip us with the dispositions to be seen as trustworthy, loving allies to our students, families, and teammates, which is a strong foundation for a creating a Culture of Safety.

Putting Care at the Forefront

Children seek out people who will meet their current needs, whether it's validation, reassurance, support, relationships, structure, guidance, or play. They need to know that we see them and that they matter. We need to ensure that message is at the forefront of every interaction in order for productive learning and growth to occur.
There are some small steps we can take to relay that message. While the following suggestions might seem overly simplistic, we've found in our work in schools that doubling down on them now can make a difference:
  • Greet students at the door.
  • Check in and ask how their day is going.
  • Acknowledge a concern if you have one: "I've noticed lately that you seem a little down, is there anything I can do to help?"
  • Follow through on past conversations: "I just wanted to check back with you and see if that assignment we worked on last week is making more sense?"
  • Laugh and delight with each other.
  • Be willing to be flexible and adaptable.

The Safety to Thrive

Our students are stressed, and understandably so; nevertheless, our expectations can remain high. When we focus on relationships, learning follows. Students learn better when they make connections—with the content, with their teacher, with prior knowledge, with each other, with a goal, and with emotion. It's important to remember that SEL and academics aren't two separate tracks; in fact, as Kristin often says, "It's one freakin' train, folks!"
We don't teach or lead effectively if we don't feel OK, and our students don't learn if they don't feel safe. Let's start from within. We can take steps to build a Culture of Safety for every student, helping them survive, learn, thrive, and soar.

Participate in Trauma-Informed Learning This Summer

Join authors Pete Hall and Kristin Souers for their virtual Trauma-Invested Institute, 30+ sessions around trauma-informed learning available to participants through August 31, 2022.

Learn more
References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2021, October 19). AAP-AACAP-CHA declaration of a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

David, S. (2016, November 10). 3 ways to better understand your emotions. Harvard Business Review.

Jones, S. E., Ethier, K. A., Hertz, M., DeGue, S., Le, V. D., Thornton, J., et al. (2022, April 1). Mental health, suicidality, and connectedness among high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic—Adolescent behaviors and experiences survey, United States, January–June 2021. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Košir, K., & Tement, S. (2014). Teacher–student relationship and academic achievement: A cross-lagged longitudinal study on three different age groups. European Journal of Psychology of Education29, 409–428.

Pierson, R. (2013). Every kid needs a champion [Video]. TED Conferences.

Veteran school administrator and educational consultant Pete Hall channels his experiences as a school principal, life coach, and small-business owner into manageable lessons for continuous growth, personal improvement, and positive mindset.

Hall served 12 years as a principal in three Title I schools, each earning awards for academic performance, growth, and student achievement. He currently works as an educational consultant as a member of the ASCD faculty and trains educators worldwide with a focus on the continuous improvement of our education systems.

Besides partnering with Alisa Simeral on three ASCD books, Hall authored over 20 articles on leadership and 11 books, including The First-Year Principal and Lead On! Motivational Lessons for School Leaders.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
School Culture
When It Comes to School Culture, Words Aren’t Enough
Alden Blodget
1 month ago

undefined
Fixing Your School's Well-Being Ecosystem
Jane Kise & Ann C. Holm
1 month ago

undefined
Letting Student Voice Lead the Way
Catharine Biddle & Lyn Mikel Brown et al.
1 month ago

undefined
Self-Care is Not Enough!
Mona M. Johnson
1 month ago

undefined
How to Make Your School Psychologically Safe
Nita Creekmore & Michael Creekmore
1 month ago
Related Articles
When It Comes to School Culture, Words Aren’t Enough
Alden Blodget
1 month ago

Fixing Your School's Well-Being Ecosystem
Jane Kise & Ann C. Holm
1 month ago

Letting Student Voice Lead the Way
Catharine Biddle & Lyn Mikel Brown et al.
1 month ago

Self-Care is Not Enough!
Mona M. Johnson
1 month ago

How to Make Your School Psychologically Safe
Nita Creekmore & Michael Creekmore
1 month ago
From our issue
Summer 2022 Header image
Nurturing Well-Being in Schools
Go To Publication