The Trauma Transmission from Students to Teachers - ASCD
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October 22, 2020

The Trauma Transmission from Students to Teachers

Classroom Management
Social-emotional learning

The COVID-19 virus has changed the world as we knew it. We have lost hundreds of thousands of lives, including those of educators that serve many of our students; jobs across the nation have disappeared with quarantines and stay-at-home orders; personal touch, viewed by some as a necessity for connection, is restricted or an impossibility. In short, the virus has infiltrated more than our bodies; it has invaded our lives.

With the reopening of schools, I want to address a topic we might prefer avoiding: Teachers are suffering from multiple layers of trauma. In addition to experiencing their own primary trauma separate from the schoolyard, the traumas of our students who have been affected by the virus can be transmitted to our educators.

We all need to recognize that COVID-19's effects for students are not homogeneous (Alexander, 2019). Separation, violence, threats of or actual illness, loss of stability, the absence of supportive teachers, and the deprivation of friends can traumatize children. In my new book, I define trauma in the context of education as any "psychologically distressing experience … occurring at any point or points in the life of a person that have the probability of disrupting his or her learning success and quality educational outcomes …" (Gross, 2020). To combat these effects, educators need strategies to facilitate their responses to students. But they also need their own self-care strategies that they can deploy once they recognize trauma's transmission (Boogren, 2018). Trauma's psychological transmission to teachers can manifest itself in several ways, including through symptomology that resembles burnout and through vicarious trauma, which threatens our core values and capacity to work effectively (Gross, 2020).

How can we help navigate forward effectively, wisely, and safely in the face of trauma?

How Student Trauma Manifests

This fall has not been like returning to school after a snow day or summer vacation. Some students couldn't (or still can't) stay up to date with online learning because they do not have access to the necessary online platforms or the family structure that enables learning from home. In-person and hybrid learning present challenges such as social distancing, wearing masks, and complex scheduling. Distance learning can make classroom management and culture, group work, and personalization a struggle.

Research shows that an individual's response to trauma has an initial acute phase, putting the autonomic nervous system on high alert (Craig, 2016). Thereafter, symptoms appear in three basic groupings (this is known as triphasic symptomology), with many students demonstrating one or more symptoms over the course of a day or week: dysregulation (anger; hostility in actions or words; lack of concentration and memory), isolation (sitting alone; not connecting with peers or adults; lack of engagement in academic or social activities), and overregulation (compliance beyond the normal; willingness to please; asking for added schoolwork) (Gross, 2020). I experienced this personally when I taught near a school very close to Ground Zero and then oversaw a college where there were deaths of a student, professor, and administrator.

Understanding Secondary and Vicarious Trauma

Students experiencing symptoms of trauma bring them to school, often in an invisible backpack. This is primary trauma. Educators need to recognize the symptoms in their students and their diversity and meet them with tools that calm the autonomic nervous system and address dysregulation, isolation, and overregulation (Craig and Sporleder, 2017). This is taxing work, requiring more attention, more personalization, and more assistance academically and psychosocially. (Not to mention that classroom management can already be a challenge without a virus.)

When educators themselves experience their own primary trauma (as the virus has caused), they are more susceptible to being traumatized by working with students who are struggling with trauma (Jennings, 2018). The trauma teachers "catch" from students is secondary trauma. The good news is that secondary trauma can be eliminated with self-care and trauma-responsive resources, unlike primary trauma (Herman and Kallivayalil, 2018).

Vicarious trauma is a more acute form of trauma that can be transmitted by students to teachers. The symptomology of vicarious trauma, although there is some overlap, is more pernicious for teachers, especially if one is confronting trauma with students in a school day in and day out. Susceptibility to vicarious trauma is dependent on the person; it can come after secondary trauma goes untreated or it can occur on its own when they level of primary trauma the teacher has experienced in their own lives and through students is overwhelming.

When vicarious trauma strikes, its primary symptoms are lack of hope in the goodness of people and the world. It makes people ask questions like, Why am I still teaching? Why is our nation devastated and beyond recovery? Where are our role models and our guideposts? How can I move forward and be productive as my efforts seem to be failing?

These questions are not easily answered. The hallmark of vicarious trauma is a deep loss of faith in one's work and one's sense of self-worth.

Finding peace within is hard work, but it is possible. Time helps. Distance helps. Reading about hope helps. Talking to colleagues and sharing one's feelings helps. Outside supports help. Journaling helps. Working with your students on a problem where you can make a difference for others can also help. Consider, for example, notes or cards to people struggling still with COVID-19 or to first responders. These kinds of outward-looking approaches help shift the locus of control from an externality (the world is bad; we are in a state of disaster) to an internality where one's actions can make a difference.

Self-care for secondary trauma involves not overworking and taking time to be with friends and loved ones to get different perspectives and receive care. Scent can help calm us, as can music and sleep and exercise.

Be Kind, Be Honest, Be Transparent

Educators often separate their personal and professional lives. But in a time of trauma, it makes sense to allow for different types of connections between educators and students. This is because both students and teachers are experiencing the pandemic The narrowing of the student/teacher divide can help both students and teachers and can be an approach to lessening secondary (and perhaps even vicarious) trauma.

Consider these exercises and activities:

  • Create a window of time in the week when students can ask teachers anything. Answer students' questions (within the bounds of decency of course): Do you have a dog? Does the dog help you feel better? Does the virus scare you? Where did you grow up? What is your favorite color? What makes you mad? What's your favorite meal? This allows students to connect more with those teaching them and to realize that the teachers are experiencing some of what the students are feeling and thinking. It allows students to see their teachers as real people and teachers to connect more effectively with their students during a troubling time.

  • Share mistake-making. Draw something with your students that show how you struggle with following directions or try a tongue twister. Students enjoy learning that others who are older struggle, too. Tongue Twisters and Beyond, Words at Play, a book I've developed, can get students and teachers laughing together. Seeing joy return to the classroom has vast benefits for traumatized students and teachers.

  • Consider the role of art teachers and music teachers and school counselors and school nurses in this planning. They can enter classrooms to provide much-needed care and facilitate what I call "processing in place": solving classroom problems in the here and now rather than sending students out of the classroom or to the principal (Gross, 2020).

Kids get what is happening more than we realize. Many, especially those who have been traumatized, are keenly aware of their environment, what's around them, how people are responding, and how others feel. Now is a time for authenticity. For honesty. For recognizing the realities in our lives, even those things that are unpleasant or damaging or tragic.

Once we better understand both the trauma our students face and our own trauma as educators, including that which is directly connected to our students' experiences, we can start to find solutions. I have hope that we will enable the next generation to thrive academically and psychosocially—without sacrificing our own health in the process. It is something we need to do. It is also something we can do. I have a belief in the power of the possible.


Alexander, J. (2019). Building trauma-sensitive schools: Your guide to creating safe, supportive learning environments for all students. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Boogren, T. H. (2018). Take time for you: Self-care action plans for educators (Using Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and positive psychology. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Craig, S. E. (2016). Trauma-sensitive schools: Learning communities transforming children's lives, K–5. New York: Teachers College Press.

Craig, S. E., & Sporleder, J. (2017). Trauma-sensitive schools for the adolescent years: Promoting resiliency and healing, grades 6–12. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gross, K. (2017). Breakaway learners: Strategies for post-secondary success with at-risk students. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gross, K. (2020). Trauma doesn't stop at the school door: Strategies and solutions for educators preK–college. New York: Teachers College Press.

Herman, J. L., Kallivayalil, D., & Members of the Victims of Violence Program. (2018). Group trauma treatment in early recovery: Promoting safety and self-care. New York: Guildford Press.

Jennings, P. A. (2018). The trauma-sensitive classroom: Building resilience with compassionate teaching. New York: W. W. Norton.

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