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Addressing trauma in the post-COVID classroom: A TIP

January 1, 2021

5-minute read

What is prompted when you hear the phrase “think of the children”? Perhaps it evokes the thought of a child you know, or perhaps the community of all the world’s children.

Guided by the Seventh Generation Principle, Haudenosaunee Chiefs make decisions having considered the sustainability seven generations onward. While this principle is associated with care for the land of water, it also applies to relationships, and has guided Haudenosaunee peoples as stewards of Turtle Island.

Thinking of our children seems intuitive. Surely we do it all the time, but especially in education. Yet, if we step back and look at (and from) this moment of crisis, it would seem we are hardly considering them at all. From my perspective as a young educator, it is hard to say we are being sufficiently thoughtful of our children today, and certainly not of those seven generations from now. The truth is that humanity will move past this pandemic in time, but how we progress is absolutely negotiable.

At the core of this issue is how we are addressing the magnitude of trauma. By now it should be apparent that a pandemic is equivalent to a natural disaster, war, or famine. In such times two things are true. First: it is insensitive and sometimes impossible to expect people to fulfil their ordinary roles in the same manner. Second: children have an immense ability to appear to cope, often without the tools to express or process their concerns.

The protracted nature of COVID-19 has led to a dulled sense of urgency. It has reinforced the notion that we should to try to return to ‘normal’...when there is nothing normal about now at all. We are insisting children apply themselves to a familiar daily structure–including schooling–while inadequately acknowledging or addressing the trauma they still live with.

To be clear, I firmly believe that children, when able, should be in schools. However, I am concerned that there is a significant disconnect between what we expect of schools and the greater purpose of education–especially now, in this moment.

To appreciate just how significant this pandemic is for children, and how schooling must adapt to address their physical, mental, and spiritual wellness will require taking a step in a new direction. How we go about integrating wellness in our classrooms also presents an avenue to reform education; one that reflects a leading dimension of pedagogy.

Trauma Informed Practice

Trauma informed practice (TIP) is an umbrella term for a series of goals rooted in equity, safety, and therapy. A TIP seeks to gain a full understanding of an individual, by recognizing their journey and all that is relevant to feeling understood. It seeks to reduce harm (or reharm) to an individual on all occasions. And it seeks to give an individual tools to process, cope with, and overcome their trauma.

To consider this pandemic through the lens of a trauma informed practice means taking stock of all that has changed in the lives of students. Think about the fear of the known and unknown, and the worry students have for the health and wellness of themselves and those they love, and the volumes of new information children now must process; the disruption to routine and the utter absence of variance in predictability. Think about the loved ones they might have lost often without even the opportunity to say goodbye. Think about the emotional labour as relationships are strained under economic and social challenges; the milestones missed, like birthdays and graduations that are fundamental to childhood development. Think about an infant who’s had to relearn to maintain their distance, kids who can no longer hug their friends, and all of us becoming used to new rules about how to interact in social spaces.

Not every child will recognize these new realities as trauma, or experience these feelings equally, but a TIP means creating the space to listen. So, the principle pillar is to open lines of communication. Doing so means students and teachers learn how to share their feelings in the classroom.

A good first step is to establish a framework for sharing so that everyone feels protected and welcomed, choosing at times to share in a large group and other times in small groups or partners. Techniques to facilitate this can include only speaking with “I” statements, validating the experience of others, and only speaking one at a time. Having set up a framework for talking, teachers should feel supported to spend as much time as necessary in this space; if students require an entire day of this kind of instruction and communication without getting to curriculum, it is probably with good reason.

The next pillar of a TIP means using the information learned to protect and dignify students. You may become aware in a sharing circle that your student has lost a family member from the virus. What you may eventually learn is that this family member was their main source of support and the one that drove them to school. Knowing this, you can now be particularly sensitive if your student arrives late. You will understand the numerous dimensions at play. Perhaps you will go out of your way to simply let them know you are glad they came. This pandemic continues to create many emotional pitfalls in our lives, but a TIP means you will be building bridges and avoiding–or at least minimizing–perils.

The third pillar of a TIP is the implementation of methods that promote physical, mental, and spiritual wellness, all of which can fall under the concept of mindfulness; an attention for one’s self, in open presence. They are the ways educators and caregivers help students alleviate, express, understand, grow, focus, release, and accept. Pretty well anything that contributes to wellness and healing can fall within this section of the practice, which means that each student may have their own preferences. Ask your students to share their ideas, and honour them as much as possible. A student may take walks with their family, so you may go walking as a class. Another student may cook food, so you could prepare a meal together in the classroom.

In my experience I have found that children love meditation, but others may wish to incorporate elements of art therapy; anything to give students a platform to reflect on their feelings and express themselves in a non-verbal way. Physical catharsis is an excellent way to express energy, frustration, and desire for control. Spending an hour making TikToks can be a productive use of time if your students are lacking momentum. Make more occasions for your students to sweat out feelings they are not aware they are embodying. In a controlled setting, let them holler at the top of their lungs. And remember nap time? Well, it is right in line with a TIP.

TIP also recognizes the trauma that educators and education workers are experiencing. Day to day, students and staff transact social-emotional behaviour. Together, we replicate society at large and form strong community bonds. By addressing the concerns of both staff and students, a TIP broadens the focus of schooling to include learning (including from each other) and healing. We know that the strength of our communities is a key factor in overcoming the difficulty of this pandemic. It would be incredible if our classrooms became the template a society more considerate of each others’ needs, more compassionate for what we cannot see, and more deliberate in sharing our emotions.

If we could offer something to our children seven generations onward, what might it be? To answer that means revisiting the purpose of education: for the support, betterment and empowerment of youth. Now is the occasion for the Ministries of Education, school boards, and administrators to strengthen the connection with parents and guardians, and extend to educators and education workers a freedom to emphasize wellness–for students, for staff, and for families.

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