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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
An imperfect new normal
Confronting COVID-19 child trauma
By Matthew Fleming | September | October 2021
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The light at the end of the tunnel has now become the end of the tunnel. With vaccination rates well over 50 percent across California and infection rates dropping everywhere, the long COVID-19 nightmare appears almost over. And while many districts are already engaging in some form of in-person or hybrid learning, almost all public schools are expected to be back to in-person instruction for the 2021-2022 school year.
Understandably, many educators are deeply concerned about such things as learning loss and the challenge of re-engaging students who are no longer accustomed to the routines of daily life in the classroom. But there will be other issues confronting all of us when the halls and classrooms are completely reopened in just a few weeks. It is imperative that teachers and administrators prepare for the full spectrum of challenges that we will face.
According to numerous studies, at least 21 percent of children nationwide have experienced at least two traumatic events. The actual percentage varies widely but increases in regions with higher poverty rates. These Adverse Childhood Experiences are implicated in cognitive and learning difficulties and even shortened lifespan (Bethell et al., 2017). In California, nearly half of adults report experiencing five or more ACEs in childhood, and there is no reason to expect that this trend has changed for our current students.
It is important for educational professionals to remember that the schoolhouse may provide much of the stability and safety that exists in some students’ lives. Consider that schools provide nutrition, mental health and sometimes even clothing for a significant number of children in California. And despite the best efforts of school districts, these services were not as accessible under distance learning protocols. Complicating matters is the increased stress experienced universally by adults over the past year. Unfortunately, children who live with stressed out adults will often experience a greater number of traumatic events. As a result, it is reasonable to expect that our students will return having experienced more trauma than might be expected in an average school year or summer break.
What does trauma look like?
Children display a variety of responses to trauma. The responses are often different based upon gender and age, or developmental level (Bethell et al., 2014). Indeed, this variety has often created a barrier to mental health supports because adults can easily see common trauma responses as behavioral issues requiring discipline (Muldoon et al., 2019). Children may be quieter than usual. Others may be louder or active. Some may engage in self harm, and others may just seek more adult attention. The challenge will be to re-engage our students in such a way that allows us to evaluate the causes for bad behavior before discipline is assigned.
The primary difference of the past year is the isolation many children have experienced, and isolation is universally regarded as a bad thing when it comes to trauma response (Bethell et al., 2017). You may have noticed that being alone at home affected your nutrition, activity, sleep cycle and mood, to name just a few things. The experience was similar for our students. We also know that social environments are critical for resilience and recovery from trauma, even in instances of PTSD (Muldoon et al., 2019). In other words, some of the very things our students needed the most were no longer available to them once COVID-19 closed their schools.
The effects of trauma upon cognition and learning
It is hard to overstate the negative effects of trauma upon the human organism. Trauma is implicated in an ever-increasing list of physical and emotional health issues (Bethell et al., 2014; Bethell et al., 2017). Regarding brain function, trauma is now known to cause problems with virtually all human activities and behaviors (Bellazaire, 2018; Bethell et al., 2014). Trauma impairs judgment. It leads to problems in literacy and numeracy. It affects concentration and attention. In fact, if you review the literature, it is very hard to find anything that trauma does not impact negatively.
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Looking ahead
This will not be easy. For one thing, many grown-ups have not had an easy year either. The adults in the schoolhouse have also suffered and lost a great deal since March 2020. Adults are grieving and traumatized as well. The problem is that, unlike children, we have the added responsibility of leading important work and quite often neglect each other and even our own wellness. The best answer is to look after each other by calmly, rationally and compassionately reminding one another of the big picture when it comes to education. Sometimes we need to learn to be content with accepting that all progress is good progress, even if it is not as significant as we hope. Yet there is a more to consider. Imagine you’re on board an aircraft and the little yellow mask drops down from the overhead compartment. You need to take care of yourself first and put your mask on before you can help others.
So, start by doing something every day that feeds your soul. Don’t just return physically to your school building. Take your heart with you. Find ways to remind yourself why you became an educator and engage that part of the work that energizes and excites you. If you are in leadership, make sure to encourage your staff to do the same things and give them the freedom to do it.
In March 2020, we were moving at full speed. But one day in the middle of that month, it all stopped and changed. It is unreasonable and unhealthy to expect that you can start back up at the same pace. Give the process time. Let things develop. And above all, be kind to yourself and others.
Bellazaire, A. (August, 2018). Preventing and mitigating the effects of adverse childhood experiences. National Conference of State Legislatures.
Bethell, C.D., Newacheck, P., Hawes, H., and Neal Halfon, N. (2014). Adverse Childhood Experiences: Assessing The Impact On Health And School Engagement And The Mitigating Role Of Resilience. Health Affairs 33:12, 2106-2115 https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2014.0914
Bethell, CD, Davis, MB, Gombojav, N, Stumbo, S, Powers, K. (October, 2017). Issue Brief: Adverse Childhood Experiences Among US Children, Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Retrieved from: cahmi.org/projects/adverse-childhood-experiences-aces
Orla T. Muldoon, S. Alexander Haslam, Catherine Haslam, Tegan Cruwys, Michelle Kearns & Jolanda Jetten (2019) The social psychology of responses to trauma: social identity pathways associated with divergent traumatic responses, European Review of Social Psychology, 30:1, 311-348, DOI: 10.1080/10463283.2020.1711628
Ortiz, R., & Sibinga, E. M. (2017). The role of mindfulness in reducing the adverse effects of childhood stress and trauma. Children, 4(3), 16. https://doi.org/10.3390/children4030016
Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The influences of emotion on learning and memory. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1454. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01454

Matthew Fleming is the K12 Strong Workforce Coordinator for the Salinas Union High School District.
This may not be surprising, but it bears notice because it is very easy to forget that a student who is displaying anti-social behavior in school might also be in extreme psychological distress that is being daily compounded by academic frustration.
A well-known psychological theory explains that the brain functions better when it is not overly encumbered. Our brains constantly evaluate internal and environmental stimuli that we experience no conscious awareness of. And that is a good thing. Imagine being consciously aware of your exact blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and temperature, as well as the myriad things that your eyes, ears, nose and skin are experiencing in a classroom of 35 students. It would be overwhelming. There is just too much going on around us for our minds to consciously focus on all of it at once.
The problem is that trauma adds an extra burden to our brains. Trauma distorts how we interact with our environment, including other people (Muldoon et al., 2019). Childhood trauma especially violates a sense of safety and normalcy that most take for granted. The traumatized child does not have the normal filter for environmental stimuli (Bethell et al., 2014). Things that the rest of us might see and hear, but not be truly aware of, may lead to hyper vigilance in a trauma victim. If you have ever driven down the road with a recent combat veteran, you might see them take in a sharp breath, or speed up and swerve widely around a pile of trash on the curb. It makes no sense, unless you know that this person has been conditioned to see that pile of trash as a potential IED location.

Traumatized children can have a similar response to seemingly innocuous things. The many little nonverbal and verbal cues we give to students in our interactions are very easily misinterpreted by a traumatized mind (Bellazaire, 2018; Ortiz & Sibinga, 2017). It is also important to note that no one is at fault here, not the educator nor the student. But we do owe it to them to be aware and alert to their cognitive differences. Learning requires the brain to receive the appropriate information, manipulate it and access the necessary structures and processes to transfer the knowledge to the correct neural node where it can be retrieved when needed (Tyng et al., 2017). Facilitating retrieval is key, and without getting into a discussion of synaptic weights and such, educators should understand that the brain structures, such as the hippocampus, that are involved in learning, storing and retrieving memory are also the structures most affected by trauma. In other words, the neurological capacity of the brain to learn and access information is deeply impaired by trauma (Tyng et al., 2017; Bethell et al., 2017).
What can we do about it?
Most of us have learned that if any teaching strategy or technique is effective for students who have barriers to learning, it will likewise tend to be effective for all students. The same maxim applies to working with trauma survivors. Remember, survivors of trauma must constantly be made to feel safe. It is imperative to ceaselessly remind them, verbally and non-verbally, that the worst is over (Bellazaire, 2018). This will usually mean getting them the help they need. This could require notification of administration, social services, mental health providers and others who are engaged in collaborating for student success and well-being. It will also be helpful for teachers to engage students in activities that promote wellness (Ortiz & Sibinga, 2017).
Trauma resilience and recovery is often described as peeling an onion. Each layer will reveal new things, and not all of them will feel like an improvement or healing at first. Meditation, quiet reflection, yoga, music, getting outside and engaging in creative activities will go a long way to helping students become more resilient. (Ortiz & SIbinga, 2017). And, none of these practices pose any harm to other students. In fact, they are good for everyone.
In one sense, the return to any type of normalcy will be a significant help to traumatized students. This will be true to some extent for all of us as we go back to familiar routines. Once we have daily face-to-face contact with students again, we will have a better opportunity to provide more of the emotional and physical supports they have been lacking. Educators should be prepared to take things slowly. Syllabi, pacing guides and standardized assessments notwithstanding, the coming year is going to require flexibility and compassion from all of us. Going back to brain theory, if the child’s focus is impacted by trauma, they will simply not be able to learn as quickly and efficiently. And that is OK. Resilience studies are showing that even if children fall behind, it is better to do the work of mitigating trauma and relax our academic pressure until they are ready. In the long run, it is the best policy.

Administrators and teachers should begin this summer having tough conversations about things like homework, assessment and grading in order to lay the groundwork for the adjusted expectations we all will need.
It is important for educational professionals to remember that the schoolhouse may provide much of the stability and safety that exists in some students’ lives.
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