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student pandemic trauma girl sitting at a bus stop

October 25, 2021 | 0 comments

Student Stories of Pandemic Trauma

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What does COVID-19-related trauma look like to the young people in our classrooms? High school psychology teacher Jim Arey knows firsthand.

Last year, he used class lessons about the central nervous system to explore the effect stress has on young bodies and minds. His assignment: Write a narrative about a significant stressor faced during the pandemic, complete with who, what, why, when and how.

The responses to Arey’s simple question are heart-wrenching.

 

I’ve fallen into a deep depression for months and months. It felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone in my family. It was also hard turning things in and participating in class when I was too depressed to get out of bed for days at a time.

 

I lost a lot of motivation, stayed home all day, and gained a lot of weight. I would just go through the same cycle of waking up, online school, eating, games, and sleep. I went from 189 to 220 [pounds].

 

People lost families, jobs, home, money, and so much more, but I lost myself.

 

COVID took away years of my childhood that I can never get back.

 

It wasn’t all bad. Some students noted that they became close to their families, and strengthened other relationships. And then there is this student:
 

I thank COVID sometimes for helping me and giving me time to find myself and who I want to be.

 

The student continued: “COVID might be terrifying. It might be killing people, but for some reason, I think that this virus came about to humble me. … For some reason that I can’t explain, I decided to not shave all through it just to see how bad my facial hair can get. It’s safe to say that’s never happening again.”

“I read those stories at home, laughing, and at times crying,” says Arey. But these sorts of exercises are not just about eliciting teacher sympathy; they are about helping students process trauma.

“A significant percentage of [these students] will benefit from exploring stress and trauma’s impact on their brains, bodies and behavior,” says Arey. And for those who need additional help, he went a step further. “For the stories that brought me to tears and suggest a need for more tailored support, I connected those courageous students with our student services team members to offer them the appropriate resources to address the adverse experiences and begin to heal and become whole again.”
 

For the stories that brought me to tears, I connected those courageous students with our student services team members.

 

Inspired by a trauma-informed strategies course offered by the AFT, Arey’s exercise is just one illustration of how educators can support students experiencing common mental health challenges — challenges that have risen exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The remote course, “10 Trauma-Informed Strategies to Help Students Heal,” emphasizes just-in-time tools all educators can use to promote all students’ mental health in general, including Support for Students Exposed to Trauma (SSET).

Broadly, SSET encourages educators to help students acknowledge traumatic events; examine how trauma can shift how we think, feel and act; and integrate relaxation and coping into student time.

“Over time, as students work to process these experiences, they will feel less upset each time they think about it,” says Chelsea Prax, programs director for AFT children’s health and well-being and a course coordinator for the union’s professional learning related to trauma-informed educational practices. “Students learn that thinking about trauma will not lead to uncontrollable behaviors or madness — rather, these are just bad memories that can’t hurt them anymore. Students learn that they can take control of their feelings and do something to make themselves feel better.”

 

Students learn that thinking about trauma will not lead to uncontrollable behaviors or madness — rather, these are just bad memories that can’t hurt them anymore.

 

Once students have had an opportunity to share, Prax and other trainers — including Arey, who has become a national teacher trainer for the course — offer further tools for unpacking what can be some scary feelings. Educators can review common reactions to stressful and traumatic events, for example, helping children see that they are not the only ones experiencing these overwhelming emotions.

Those reactions might include being on guard and anticipating something bad (anxiety); feeling anger, bad about yourself, fear, grief, guilt, out of control, sadness or shame; having trouble concentrating; jumping at sudden changes or loud noises; physical health problems; not being able to remember parts of what happened; not wanting to talk or think about it (avoidance); and trouble sleeping.

To help students with coping strategies, educators can tease out the resilience students already possess. Arey’s students provide some compelling examples in their narratives:

 

As bad as COVID has impacted all of us, it also opened new doors for us; I’ve met new people, made very strong friendships, and I am almost one year into the best relationship I ever could’ve asked for and have gotten closer to my family.

 

I don’t know if I was really scared about what happened, but I know I don’t want to go through it again. On the bright side as far as I know, I never got COVID

 

These examples show coping mechanisms like connecting with others in healthful relationships and highlighting the positive; others showed students maintaining routines for physical and psychological health and participating in institutions and activities that enrich. More specifically, Prax suggests educators could lead a dance break, have students take turns around a circle expressing gratitude, practice mindful attention for the length of a poem read aloud, or discuss how to choose the healthiest options during a school meal.

This broad range of strategies can help students — and educators — through all sorts of challenges, not just those caused by the pandemic. Every day, thousands of students face loss and uncertainty — and trauma. To learn more about how you can support them, contact Prax, and consider signing up for a workshop.

 

Jim Arey is a national trainer in the trauma-informed education course. He is also president of Northwest Suburban Teachers Union for District 214 in Illinois and is a high school social studies teacher.

Chelsea Prax is programs director for AFT children’s health and well-being and a course coordinator for the union’s professional learning related to trauma-informed educational practices.

 

Additional Resources

 

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.