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Support Traumatized Students
Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., and David Schonfeld, Ph.D.
Thursday September 01, 2011
by: Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., and David Schonfeld, Ph.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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Students lives are all too often touched by trauma and loss. It is estimated that 90 percent of students have experienced the death of a family member, relative or someone they cared about by the time they graduate from high school, with 40 percent experiencing the death of someone their own age. Children also experience traumatic events in their lives, such as parents’ divorce, domestic violence, child maltreatment, parental substance abuse and accidents.

These experiences will affect their thoughts, feelings, behaviors and physical well-being. The result can be an impact on their learning potential and school performance. Students, parents and school staff may turn to you for help in navigating the aftermath of such events.
Understanding how trauma and loss events can affect students is the first step to knowing how to support them. Although there are common reactions, each student will react in his or her own way and in his or her own time.

If students are having some of these reactions, school grades may show a decline. This can be upsetting to the student, parents and teachers if they don’t recognize and understand the cause for this performance change. A small number of students may actually show improvement in school performance. In an attempt to regain a sense of control after a trauma or loss, they may become wholly focused on something they can control – schoolwork. This is usually to the exclusion of activities with family and friends and involvement in extracurricular activities they used to enjoy.

When students experience a trauma or loss, it is not only the event itself that affects students but many additional losses (secondary losses) as well. For example, after a natural disaster, students and their families may be forced to move. This may result in a change of schools and friends and loss of security of the familiar school community. Similarly, after the death of a parent, financial challenges may be a secondary loss. Due to loss of the deceased parent’s income, extracurricular activities may no longer be an option; the student loses important potential supports such as peers and trusted adults associated with these activities. Trauma and loss can also affect the student’s plans for the future. Without a parent, who will help with college applications? Secondary losses include an overall decreased sense of security and safety they previously had.

Steps to Help
There are many supportive actions you can take to help students after a trauma or loss. Your actions can help all students struggling to cope.

Initiate the conversation: After a trauma or loss, students may be hesitant to approach school personnel, including school counselors. This may be particularly true if they have not interacted with the school counseling staff in the past. Students may not want to feel different or may sense that the adults are not comfortable discussing the event. Let the student know you are aware of the recent experience and are thinking of him or her. Let the student know you are available to talk and to listen. Provide options for a time to talk. Remember, listen more than you talk. Be aware of verbal and nonverbal behaviors in the student.

Validate feelings and experiences: Students need to know you really hear what they are sharing. Through open-ended questions and reflective listening, let students know you not only empathize but understand the difficulties and concerns expressed.

Answer questions and correct misinformation and misattributions: Students may have many questions after a trauma or loss. Answer them simply and directly at an age-appropriate level, and this will increase communication. As you talk with students, listen for misinformation and misattributions, which often lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Gently correct these, supplying accurate information.

Educate students and caregivers about common reactions: Students may experience many of the reactions commonly associated with trauma or loss. These may be frightening to them or leave them feeling different from their peers. Learning from you about common reactions can help to normalize their reactions and encourage them to talk more openly about them. Help parents and other caregivers also learn about these reactions. They may also be experiencing similar reactions. You can discuss how this can lead to stress or conflict in the home when everyone is experiencing some distress. Knowledge can also help family members recognize distress, which can lead to increased support and patience with their children. For example, knowing that school performance may be adversely affected is important to students, parents and teachers. This knowledge can be paired with modified assignments and tests as well as patience and support with homework.

Help students identify positive coping strategies: Although students may not have had the exact same experience in their past, they are likely to have run into challenges or difficult circumstances. Talk to the students about how they coped with past challenges. Reinforce positive strategies they may have used to help them through these difficulties. Teach new strategies if these are lacking, including skills for anxiety management or addressing intrusive thoughts. Some examples of positive coping include: relaxation exercises, talking to and spending time with friends and family, thought-stopping strategies for intrusive thoughts, maintaining a sense of routine, getting rest and having a healthy diet. Together with the student, generate a menu of coping strategies they have used or could use with this event.

Identify triggers or reminders: Students’ reactions may intensify when they experience a reminder of the trauma or loss. These may be obvious such as hearing sirens or seeing debris associated with a disaster or accident. Reading a story in class where a similar event occurs can be a trigger. These may also be personal to the individual student such as hearing a song that reminds him or her of the loss. Attending an event which the deceased loved one used to enjoy may serve as a trigger. Holidays, birthdays, special occasions and anniversaries all can be triggers for increased reactions. Triggers can occur soon after the trauma or loss as well as in the short- and long-term aftermath of the event. Help students identify potential triggers as well as coping strategies to use when reactions occur. Work out with teachers a mechanism by which the student can leave class to speak with you or go to a safe location if feeling overwhelmed by a trigger.

Encourage return to extracurricular activities they enjoyed before the trauma: Participation in extracurricular activities can help students begin to feel their worlds can have some semblance of normal again. Students may need “permission” to have fun again. They may not have the same level of enjoyment they once had, but with continued involvement, the enjoyment is likely to increase. Through these activities students can reconnect with supportive friends and adults. The activities also provide “a break” from the trauma and loss, another important piece of the healing process.

Encourage activities that promote help and healing: Students who are experiencing distress due to trauma or loss can augment their coping and healing when they reach out and help others who may also be distressed. Talk to students about ideas they may have to reach out and help others in similar or even unrelated situations. Listen and incorporate their ideas into a helping and healing activity.

Maintain regular communication with the student’s teachers and caregivers: Continue to check-in with adults important in the student’s life. Teachers can give you insight about how the student is coping in class, and parents can give you similar information about how things are going at home. With permission, consider connecting with the student’s pediatrician. This, coupled with your interactions, may be the best way of knowing if students are coping effectively or if more intensive mental health interventions may be needed. You can then help facilitate a referral as needed.

Be available for the immediate-, short-, and long-term after a trauma or loss: Once you make a connection with students who have experienced a trauma or loss, you become someone they may turn to when they are having difficulties over time. It only takes a moment to ask, “Tell me how things are going.” This lets students know you care and you remember about their trauma or loss. It is also likely they will turn to you when other challenges arise in the future. Your concern and support has the potential to make a significant positive impact on students’ lives immediately after a difficult event and well into their future.

As a school counselor, you are also in an ideal position to provide training and information to school personnel around issues of trauma and loss. Your background and knowledge of typical child development and behavior and recognition of mental health concerns makes you a trusted resource for your school community.

Robin H. Gurwitch, Ph.D., is program coordinator for the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. She can be reached at robin.gurwitch@cchmc.org. David J. Schonfeld, M.D., is director, National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. He can be reached at david.schonfeld@cchmc.org.