Navigating Trauma in a Post-COVID World: How SEL Can Help Students Cope

What is Trauma?

Given the year we’ve all collectively experienced (when merely saying “2020” is enough to explain any negative event, you know the year has been rough), many of us are becoming more aware of the impact that trauma can have on school, work, and home life. Any experience that causes intense physical or psychological stress reactions can be considered trauma. Traumatic events can be isolated, like the loss of a loved one, or things that happen over time, such as bullying or poverty. It’s important to note that while there are certain events that most of us would find to be traumatic, ultimately, it’s the person’s perceptions of the event that matter. This means that just because you personally don’t find an event to be traumatic doesn’t mean that someone else does not. Additionally, it is also possible for a person to experience what’s known as secondary trauma – a reaction from witnessing a traumatic event or learning about it happening to someone else.


Trauma-Informed Practices

As we grapple as a society with systemic racism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and political unrest, we need to have a way to help our students cope with these events and any other hardships they may be experiencing. Trauma-informed practices in schools provide a framework for understanding and responding to different types of trauma. Despite the perception that trauma is rare, it is estimated that at least half to two-thirds of children have experienced trauma in their lives[1].

Past (or present) trauma can impact students by making it more likely for their flight or fight response to be activated, since experiencing trauma has an impact on the brain. This means that students may often be in a heightened state of watchfulness (“on alert”) without realizing it. In addition to reacting to things that others may not notice, students who are constantly on alert may struggle to focus on schoolwork. Trauma has been associated with difficulties in emotional regulation, difficulty forming or maintaining social relationships, and difficulties in school[2],[3].

Fortunately, you do not need to know the details about a student’s trauma – or even if they have experienced it – in order to provide a foundation to help students cope. Understanding how trauma can impact students and having strategies to provide a safe and positive environment are important pieces of trauma-informed practices. As part of Mosaic™by ACT® SEL professional development program, Powerful Educator, we focus on three main tenets of trauma-informed practice: safety, relationships, and coping skills.



A safe environment is one in which students can depend upon consistency, which includes a predictable schedule along with adults that can be counted on. A feeling of safety at school is important for all students, but additional supports may be needed for students who have experienced trauma, such as advanced warnings about transitions or changes to routines. A focus on positive student behaviors, instead of negative ones, can also help foster a sense of safety.



Relationships are likewise critical to building a safe environment and helping students who have experienced trauma. As we discussed in a previous blog post, positive teacher-student relationships are associated with increased student engagement, attendance, and achievement. For the student with trauma, strong relationships can help students feel secure and be less likely to be “on alert,” freeing up space for them to focus on learning.


Coping Skills

Finally, helping students develop coping skills for managing thoughts and emotions can help lay the groundwork for developing healthy behaviors in response to stress. In addition to teaching your students healthy coping strategies (which can be as simple as pausing and taking a deep breath, like this song from the tv series “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” introduces), model these behaviors in the classroom. For example, naming your feelings and appropriately dealing with them. “I’m feeling really frustrated that I can’t get my computer to connect to the projector! I’m going to take a deep breath, and I’ll try again a little later.”

Trauma-Informed Practices Can Help

The year 2020 has been a tumultuous time for all of us, and as a result, many of us are considering the role of trauma for the first time. Creating a safe environment, building positive relationships, and equipping students with skills needed to navigate uncomfortable emotions will go a long way toward a healthy learning environment for all students, regardless of their personal experiences with trauma. Next week, as we continue our discussion on trauma-informed practices, we will explore circles of care and school-wide trauma-informed practices. You can also tune-in Thursday, November 12th at 2p ET/11a PT for our upcoming webinar regarding SEL and trauma-informed practices. Even if you can’t attend live, register now to receive a recording of the webinar.

[1] McInerney, M. McKlindon, A. (2014). Unlocking the door to learning: Trauma-informed classrooms & transformed schools. Retrieved from: Trauma Informed in Schools Classrooms

[[2] Cavanaugh, B. (2016). Trauma-informed classrooms and schools. Beyond Behavior, 25(2), 41-46.

[[3] Dotson Davis, L. (2019). Implications of trauma-sensitive practices and the middle level. Middle Grades Review, 5(1), 1-8.

Date: November 12, 2020
Time: 2 p.m. ET / 11 a.m. PT
Duration: 60 Minutes

Jill McVey, PhD

Jill McVey, PhD

Jill McVey is a research scientist In ACT’s Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. She completed her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Research Methods and Statistics at the University of Denver. Her primary research interests are in education, particularly the impact that social and emotional skills have on academic achievement.