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Addressing students’ social, emotional and behavioral stress -- not trauma -- when they return to school

Howie Knoff
August 31, 2020

Throughout this pandemic, the American public has sometimes had to choose between science and beliefs, between objective data and personal testimonials. And while the medical, social, economic and educational toll from the COVID-19 virus is unprecedented, some of the effects have been politicized by our leaders, and sensationalized by the press. Sadly, the latter has occurred when discussing the emotional status of our students as districts prepare for their re-entry (in one form or another) this new school year.

A specific concern here are the many stories -- both in the popular press and from the professional community -- discussing the significant numbers of “traumatized” students who will be returning to school. To be sure, many students may experience trauma -- for example, because they have lost a loved one to the virus. But trauma is not something that automatically occurs when a parent, grandparent or sibling dies. Moreover, from a clinician’s perspective, assuming that trauma exists without objectively and empirically validating its presence, and then treating the presumed trauma, may actually make a separate emotional condition worse.

In this “if it bleeds, it leads” 24-hour news world, fueled by social media, we need to remember (a) what trauma really is; (b) that students have more issues related to anxiety, fear, and stress than trauma; and (c) that schools should begin the new year from a strengths-based perspective, relative to students’ social, emotional and behavioral standing, rather than a pathology-oriented deficit perspective.

How is Trauma Defined?

According to the US Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, 2013), individual trauma results -- through an event, a series of events, or a set of experiential circumstances -- from exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Trauma has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.

In contrast, Abigail Powers Lott states that, “Stress is something we all face. It comes in many forms and differs across contexts, from work-related or financial stress, to social problems, to new life changes, to internal experiences. Some stressors are minor or short term, while others may be chronic….The reason for this narrow definition of trauma, and its distinction from stress more generally, is in part because traumatic events can result in particularly problematic trauma responses that are unique from general stress responses.”

For students, their most common stressors include those related to academic frustration and failure; homework and tests; boyfriend/girlfriend and other peer relationship issues; teasing and bullying; gender status and sexual orientation; racial or cultural prejudice and discrimination; poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity; and physical or other limitations or disabilities. While significant, these stressors rarely meet the definition of trauma and, consistent with Lott, interventions for them -- especially in school -- generally differ.

Thus, even including the pandemic, more students are affected by stress than trauma. As such, first and foremost, schools need to be stress-sensitive and informed. The popular press recommendation that schools be “trauma-informed” is too specialized and narrow. Moreover, a recent review of over 7,000 studies that evaluated school-based trauma-informed programs and that were published during the last ten years, found that none of the studies were methodologically sound enough to validate the efficacy of any of the programs analyzed.

What Do Schools Need to Do When Students Return This Year?

To address students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs -- in general and in the context of the pandemic -- schools need to prepare now to do four things when students re-enter:

  • Immediately create and sustain positive, prosocial, relationship-driven school and classroom settings for all students. In developmentally sensitive ways, schools need to help all students -- from preschool through high school -- to emotionally reconnect personally, socially, and instructionally with their peers and teachers.

These interpersonal interactions need to build on students’ existing strengths and skills, rather than on anticipated student problems or deficits.

  • Make sure that staff understand that students will exhibit different levels of social, emotional, and behavioral variability, and that this is normal and expected. Students do not need messages that they are "emotionally fragile or broken." They need time, support, and encouragement embedded in messages that say, “We will listen to you,” “We believe in you,” “We will help you.”
  • Coordinate the mental health and support staff -- counselors, social workers, school psychologists, applied behavior analysts, relevant special education teachers -- so that there are systemic and systematic plans and resources to address the needs of students (a) who we already know need social, emotional, or behavioral support -- based on how they left school in March; and (b) who return to school with early or significant warning signs of distress or upset.

These latter students need formal evaluations to clarify their social, emotional, or behavioral problems, to determine the intensity of the concerns, and to identify their root causes.

  • Have multi-tiered small group and individual services, supports, and interventions to address the root causes above ready for implementation, and back-ups -- from the community mental health system or telehealth service providers -- available for overwhelming numbers of or critical need cases. 

In summary, we should not assume that a specific percentage of students will return to school with high levels of either stress or trauma. We need to be prepared, but we need to give students the time to reconnect and readjust.

For students with social, emotional, or behavioral challenges, we need to evaluate and validate -- like a medical doctor. We then need to do the “contact tracing” to determine why the stress or trauma exists -- because it may not be pandemic-related. Finally, we need to provide the services and supports to address the root causes of the problem, and resolve the issues as quickly and successfully as possible.

Like the return to school from a significant weather event or school/community crisis, we are all in this together. While COVID-19 presents some unique circumstances, our schools and communities have adapted to past unanticipated situations, and we can do this again!

Dr. Howie Knoff is an international consultant specializing in multi-tiered social-emotional learning. He is a licensed psychologist, taught at two Research I universities for 22 years, and was a federal school improvement grant director for the Arkansas Department of Education for 13 years. Howie has published 24 books and 100+ articles/book chapters, and he was the 21st President of the National Association of School Psychologists. Connect with him at: knoffprojectachieve1@gmail.com, @DrHowieKnoff, on Facebook at Project ACHIEVE Educational Solutions and www.projectachieve.info

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