3 key actions for trauma-informed student supports

Most every K–12 teacher or administrator can anecdotally describe the mental health and wellness challenges their students now face. Statistically, it’s overwhelming—more than one-third (37 percent) of high school students report that they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and 44 percent of them reported they felt persistently sad or hopeless during the past year.

The degree and types of trauma students now face can be measured as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that demand deliberate and focused school-based supports that can mitigate the ACE’s impact on a student. We have talked for years about the challenges students face, but it is now time to actualize support systems that not only re-engage, but keep students engaged in their learning.

ACEs are traumatic experiences that occur in childhood, such as experiencing violence, abuse, neglect, and even economic and health disruptions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 61 percent of adults surveyed across 25 different states reported experiencing at least one type of ACE before age 18, and 1 in 6 adults reported experiencing 4 or more types of ACEs. While ACEs don’t have a single cause, they do have lasting, negative effects on health, well-being, education and even job potential. Toxic stress from ACEs affects a child’s brain development, immune systems, and stress-response, leading to a decrease in a child’s attention, decision-making abilities, and learning. Yet, students often lack access to proper support.

This lack of support may be as simple as proper record keeping or as complex as systemic inequities leading to inconsistent supports. According to a February 2019 report from ASCA, students of color and students from low-income families are often shortchanged, receiving unequal access to school counselors or attending a school with too few school counselors. The pandemic upended education and the support systems schools and districts had in place for students. In addition, the CDC warns of an accelerating mental health crisis among adolescents. Just in March, the CDC shared new data on students’ well-being, illuminating the mental health threats students face.

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Every day a student suffers unsupported, they become less likely to stay engaged in their learning. School leaders must recognize the trauma students have undergone, as well as the concerns around students’ mental health and well-being. It’s also important to understand that even as educators, we can’t just jump in and fix things as ACEs consist of multiple complex factors.

Regardless, educators can immediately implement three key actions that support students with trauma-informed mindfulness:

1. Monitor student behaviors

The pandemic had an enormous effect on students nationwide. While educators did a tremendous job ensuring learning continued, students (as well as adults) went through months of social isolation, anxiousness, and difficulties. Students stressed about their parents losing their jobs, the health of their friends and families, and even lost loved ones to COVID-19. The trauma that stems from the pandemic and those life-changing events isn’t disappearing now that students are back in classrooms.

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