HomepageISTEEdSurge
Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
Join ASCD
February 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 5

The Second Backpack: Creating Predictable Systems for Students with Trauma

author avatar
Students aren’t just weighed down with the books they haul to class. Many carry a far heavier load of trauma.  

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Social-emotional learningEquity
The Second Backpack: Creating Predictable Systems for Students with Trauma Header Image
Credit: Bibadashk / shutterstock
The school hallways are bustling with activity before the first bell. Students haul backpacks filled with homework, supplies, and sports equipment. Sometimes, they cart the occasional show-and-tell item or science project. 
Yet as I look out on this morning parade, I know that two in every three students carry a second, invisible backpack—and it’s weighty indeed. That’s the estimated percentage of children experiencing trauma before they turn 16 (SAMHSA, 2023). Whether it involves a single episode or a string of events, trauma causes a “gnawing interior discomfort” (Van Der Kolk, 2015) and a chronic sense of danger. In school, a legacy of trauma can hinder students’ ability to learn new information (Miller & Howard, 2023); develop executive functioning (Lantrip et al., 2021); and foster healthy relationships with peers and staff. 
The fear and panic caused by COVID-19, along with subsequent social isolation, economic hardships, and academic disruptions, increased anxiety across grade levels (Brannen et al., 2023). For students already experiencing trauma in the home, the pandemic exacerbated emotional and psychological distress. In many districts, the shift to remote learning interrupted traditional school support systems, such as access to counselors and social workers.  
Post-pandemic, these issues pose even greater risks for students’ overall mental health and well-being. High schoolers who reported four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—traumatic events that occur before a child reaches the age of 18—have a “prevalence of poor current mental health four times as high” as their peers and are 25 times more likely to have attempted suicide (Anderson et al., 2022). Trauma can also create high levels of compassion fatigue among educators who guide and support these students (Lawson et al., 2019).  
In my 15 years as a guidance coordinator and districtwide special education administrator, I’ve seen how trauma can manifest in the classroom. In some students it takes the form of dissociation, a detachment from reality, making a student too fixated on their thoughts to speak up in class or participate in a group activity. Others might externalize their stress and exhibit oppositional, impulsive, or disruptive behavior (Keels et al., 2021). In far too many cases, trauma gets camouflaged in perfectionist tendencies, inconsistent motivation and effort, and stomachaches and headaches.  

Trauma can be shrouded in silence and stigma; we never truly know who is experiencing challenges outside of school.

Author Image

Having grown up in a violent, emotionally abusive home, I know how easy it is to fly under the radar. I never received care and support in school because I got great grades, engaged in the community, and didn’t qualify for special education services. This underscores the importance of schoolwide and districtwide approaches to trauma-informed spaces. Trauma can be shrouded in silence and stigma; we never truly know who is experiencing challenges outside of school.

Building Foundational Predictability

Creating predictability in our school communities not only helps trauma-affected students build resilience, but also fosters healthy social-emotional learning for all. Teachers could benefit from supports in this area because research indicates they feel unequipped to deal with trauma in the classroom (Berger, Bearsley, & Lever, 2020). Reframing our approach to trauma-informed school communities starts with a collective commitment to establishing predictability across teams, grades, departments, and schools, reinforcing the idea that the school environment is safe and secure (TREP Project, 2023).  
Here are four ways that education leaders can build foundational ­predictability for all students:

1. Provide Student Supports for Managing Time 

Trauma activates the brain’s stress response, diminishing a student’s ability to recall information, focus on a task, or pay attention. Crafting and reinforcing schoolwide expectations around time can help cultivate a space for structured learning—and reduce the likelihood that a student will feel anxious and uncertain about what’s to come. 
Work with your staff to develop and communicate a standardized system for outlining daily schedules and student expectations. Have everyone strive to post these materials in the same place in every classroom. Ensure that related service providers, such as counselors, social workers, therapists, and paraprofessionals are aware of this system and reference schedules and expectations in the same way.  
Trauma-affected students can become easily overstimulated and may struggle to process spoken instructions like, “This assignment is due Tuesday.” Use both verbal and visual reminders to jog students’ memories about what needs to be done and when, and encourage individual accountability throughout the day. For lengthy or important instructions, summarize the steps or have students repeat them aloud to you. Your team might also consider letting middle school or high school students record instructions for certain school tasks using voice memos on their devices so they can listen to those instructions later on.  
Incorporating rhyming, ­mnemonics, or acronyms into directions and reminders may be appropriate as well. An Oklahoma teacher revamped Taylor Swift’s “Bejeweled” into “When I Walk into School” to reinforce the morning routine for her 2nd graders (Colosi, 2023). A strategy of this sort could help prepare students for working in small groups or remind them of an early dismissal. Consider also how information flows from students to families. If your district or school relies on morning announcements for sharing campus wide updates, consider adding additional student communications throughout the school. These might involve hallway displays, student-led reminder boards, online platform notifications, or handouts. 
Most educators begin a year or semester with strong plans for student supports but can struggle with consistent implementation midyear. Check in periodically with all members of your team; in both announced and unannounced classroom visits, look for verbal and visual supports that help students manage time. In an evaluation context, this function might be worded as, “The team member shows evidence of creating predictable environments” and would fall under the standard of “meeting the needs of all learners.”  

Creating predictability in our school communities not only helps trauma-affected students build resilience, but also fosters healthy social-emotional learning for all.

Author Image

Bringing more consistency to unstructured time can also help. Explore how educators facilitate a study hall or dedicated free time across campus. Although many students can manage independent work in such spaces, trauma-affected students may feel overwhelmed by the range of options available or their long to-do lists. In the absence of consistency, students might also feel understimulated and dysregulated, becoming disruptive as a result. Teachers might consider putting together a flowchart with a sequence of activities for students to progress through or provide a choice of activities during a free period. For example, “For the next 15 minutes, you can either draw your diagram, read the next chapter, or complete the weekly puzzle.” This can help narrow the focus and bolster student decision-making skills.

2. Try (and Document) “Guideposting”

Michael Shurtleff’s book Audition (2009) highlights 12 acting principles, which he calls guideposts, that help actors respond to and convey unexpected changes in a character or scene. School leaders can develop a similar, proactive culture of using guideposts to anticipate and meet the needs of trauma-affected students.  
For example, clear, consistent schedules can help students internalize transitions. However, the typical school day is rife with the unforeseen: Avery is meeting a new paraprofessional today; Mason’s grandmother will be picking him up early; an exam will be moved to next week. ­Proactively previewing these changes can help trauma-affected students manage their emotions in response to ­unpredictable circumstances. 
Moreover, adults can identify moments to help students connect how they’re feeling physically to their emotions and model healthy stress management techniques. For a group of elementary school students, it might look like this: “I’m sad to tell you that this afternoon’s assembly has been canceled. Like me, I imagine many of you may be upset. Let’s channel that sadness into a 5-minute dance break.” When possible, draw on the shades-of-meaning strategy, which prompts students to accurately describe their feelings using just the right word (Learnova, 2018). Share with staff specific phrases that help students cope with adjustments and foster positive, resilient behavior. Validating emotions and reminding a student to engage in de-escalation techniques can prove effective: “Hadley, I see why you’re feeling angry. How would you like to try to calm down? By practicing deep breathing or playing a game?”  
Identify ways to preview potential triggers as part of your school community’s guideposting. To pinpoint a student’s trigger, consider partnering with an occupational therapist to observe classrooms and conduct formal screenings or find a pattern of responses or behavior in a special education student’s IEP, recent evaluations, or a trauma-informed functional behavior assessment (FBA). Conversations with caregivers and with other teachers the student has had can be beneficial. However, be mindful that triggers might not be noticeable until they happen.  
On campus, consider possible sensory triggers like loud noises, strong odors, and confinement, which educators can accommodate with noise-canceling headphones, air purifiers, open windows, or flexible seating options. Take into account ­thematic triggers as well, such as mental health issues, abuse, and neglect. Because of the likely underreporting of traumatic experiences, presenting options to a class may be most effective in warding off triggered reactions. For example, “The short story we’ll be reading next week includes a character who has been sexually assaulted. However, you may choose to read a second story instead. Whichever you choose, we’ll be working on identifying and analyzing the role of literary devices.”  
In my current role as guidance coordinator and special education administrator, I’ve ensured that guideposting is codified into IEPs, 504 plans, and student records. If a student has a self-regulation goal, their triggers would be outlined under the “goals” section, along with key ways to modify the environment so they might better navigate those triggers.

3. Create Opportunities for Emotional Identification and Regulation

A chaotic, traumatic household—or an ever-changing situation for an unhoused or a foster care student—influences a child’s development of social-emotional communication abilities. In the classroom, these traumas can affect mastery of literacy and verbal skills. Instead of using language to build mutual understanding, such as actively listening or respectfully responding to a peer’s different viewpoint, some traumatized students use language to wall themselves off from those who are potentially threatening. They might become quiet and withdrawn, use defensive language, move to a safe space in the building, or adopt closed-off body language to create a barrier (for example, by crossing their arms across their chest, turning their body away, or hunching their shoulders). 

I know that two in every three students carry a second, invisible backpack—and it’s weighty indeed.

Author Image

Early exposure to trauma can also inhibit a child’s ability to form healthy relationships. Children as young as eight who have witnessed or experienced emotional abuse and neglect have been found to struggle with practicing empathy (Berzenski & Yates, 2022). Deficits in this area can make it difficult for a student to solve a problem from a different point of view and make inferences.
Trauma-affected students benefit from short, scheduled check-ins throughout the day to strengthen their emotional vocabulary and help them practice healthy emotional regulation. A social worker, psychologist, guidance counselor, or paraprofessional would lead this 5- or 10-minute check-in to talk about the student’s day and identify the student’s feelings in a safe, productive way.  
It’s helpful to have a school or districtwide scale or set of categories that students can use to self-assess and share their emotional states. Open-ended questions at the start of a school day or class period, such as, “How’s your energy today?” or “Rate your energy by selecting a color-coded card,” prompt introspection. Although many districts use the Zones of Regulation process, which sorts emotions into four colored zones, there’s no scripted method to use. Instead of diving into instruction, you might start the day or a lesson after lunch with gentle stretching or breathing exercises. Weaving in natural breaks—avoiding teaching from bell to bell—creates a calming space for students to self-modulate and observe their peers’ regulation behaviors.

4. Put a Systemwide Strategy into Motion

A student’s perceptions drive their behavior. Ensuring that all educators and staff understand these perceptions on a systemwide level is crucial for crafting a supportive, inclusive education environment. Share and reinforce the strategies we’ve highlighted in districtwide meetings, teacher institute days, or even memos.  
Looking back on my own experiences—as both a youth affected by trauma and as a district administrator—it’s clear to me that education leaders have a pivotal role in crafting, setting, and modifying a standardization of care. By building a culture of predictability, we can ensure that every student finds safety, security, and support. We need to do everything we can to lessen the weight of that second backpack that students carry.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Has your school codified a systemwide response to student trauma?

➛ What trauma-inducing triggers have you observed in your own school or classroom?

➛ How predictable are your school and classroom routines? What could you do to make them more predictable?

References

Anderson, K. N., Swedo, E. A., Trinh, E., Ray, C. M., Krause, K. H., Verlenden, J. V., et al. (2022). Adverse childhood experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic and associations with poor mental health and suicidal behaviors among high school students—­Adolescent behaviors and experiences survey, United States, January–June 2021. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 71(41), 1301–1305.  

Berger, E., Bearsley, A., & Lever, M. (2020). Qualitative evaluation of teacher trauma knowledge and response in schools. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 30(8), 1041–1057.  

Berzenski, S. R., & Yates, T. M. (2022). The development of empathy in child maltreatment contexts. Child Abuse & Neglect, 133, 105827.  

Brannen, D. E., Wynn, S., Shuster, J., & Howell, M. (2023). Pandemic isolation and mental health in children. Disaster Medicine and Public Health ­Preparedness, 17.  

Colosi, R. (2023, October 25). Call her Ms. Swift: How the pop star is inspiring lesson plans across the country. TODAY.com.  

Keels, M., Dinizulu, S., Parikh, S., & Jointer, T. (2021). Preparing schools to meet the needs of students coping with trauma and toxic stress. EdResearch for Recovery Project, Results for America, and Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.  

Lantrip, C., Szabo, Y. Z., Pazienza, S., & Benge, J. (2021). Associations of childhood trauma and executive functioning in everyday life of those with subjective cognitive complaints. Applied Neuropsychology: Adult, 30(1), 101–109.  

Lawson, H. A., Caringi, J. C., Gottfried, R., Bride, B. E., & Hydon, S. P. (2019). Educators’ secondary traumatic stress, children’s trauma, and the need for trauma literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 89(3), 421–447.  

Learnova. (2018, December 6). Grade 2: Shades of meaning [Video]. YouTube.

Miller, C., & Howard, J. (2023, April 27). How trauma affects kids in school. Child Mind Institute.  

Shurtleff, M. (2009). Audition. Bloomsbury Press.  

Substance Abuse and Mental Health ­Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2023, March 17). Understanding child trauma.  

TREP Project. (2023). Consistency and ­predictability

Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books. 

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
Social-emotional learning
What Does It Mean to Belong?
Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey
3 weeks ago

undefined
Student Mental Health: What’s Autonomy Got to Do with It?
Cathy Vatterott
3 weeks ago

undefined
What I Heard from Students About Mental Health—and What Helps
Nick Ironside
3 weeks ago

undefined
Protecting Black Youths’ Emotional Lives
Horace R. Hall
3 weeks ago

undefined
Tell Us About
Educational Leadership Staff
3 weeks ago
Related Articles
What Does It Mean to Belong?
Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey
3 weeks ago

Student Mental Health: What’s Autonomy Got to Do with It?
Cathy Vatterott
3 weeks ago

What I Heard from Students About Mental Health—and What Helps
Nick Ironside
3 weeks ago

Protecting Black Youths’ Emotional Lives
Horace R. Hall
3 weeks ago

Tell Us About
Educational Leadership Staff
3 weeks ago
From our issue
February 2024 Header Image
Mental Health Matters
Go To Publication