School administrators play many roles when it comes to child development. Apart from helping students learn and succeed, their responsibilities also include improving and maintaining students’ mental health. When a traumatic event occurs, children look for answers from people they trust. Alongside family members, principals and other education administrators play a key role in helping students acquire coping skills and recover from traumatic experiences.

School leaders are in a unique position when it comes to helping children cope with trauma and grief. Because they work closely with students and teachers on a daily basis, it is important for them to know how to respond to childhood traumatic stress.

About Traumatic Stress

For education professionals, understanding how traumatic events affect children is key for managing their emotions and behaviors after the event. Childhood traumatic stress is caused by violent or dangerous events that “overwhelm a child’s or adolescent’s ability to cope,” according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Examples of traumatic events include:

  • Natural disasters
  • Terrorism
  • School violence
  • Serious accidents
  • War events

Unfortunately, about one in every four children experience a traumatic event before the age of 16, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). “From a psychological perspective, trauma occurs when a child experiences an intense event that threatens or causes harm to his or her emotional and physical well-being,” the NCTSN explains.

It is important to note that, for our purposes, we are discussing general child traumatic stress and not post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Every child diagnosed with PTSD is experiencing child traumatic stress, but not every child experiencing child traumatic stress has all the symptoms for a PTSD diagnosis,” the NCTSN notes.

Symptoms of Traumatic Stress

There are a wide variety of signs and symptoms associated with child traumatic stress. They are different from child to child and also vary depending on age: Young children may have more noticeable symptoms than adolescents. In some cases, symptoms can cause children to struggle in daily life and interactions with others.

Immediately following the traumatic event, children react in both psychological and physiological ways, according to the NCTSN: “Their heart rate may increase, and they may begin to sweat, to feel agitated and hyperalert, to feel ‘butterflies’ in their stomach, and to become emotionally upset.”

While these reactions are normal and are designed to protect humans from danger, some children experience adverse long-term effects as well. Examples include severe emotional upset, depression, anxiety, changes in behavior, trouble concentrating, nightmares and more. Teachers and instructional leaders can help students cope and learn to deal with traumatic events in a constructive way.

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Teaching Coping Skills to Students

The following are some of the ways instructional leaders can help students deal with emotional trauma and stress.

  • Serve as a role model in times of concern. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Children’s reactions are influenced by the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of adults. Adults should encourage children and adolescents to share their thoughts and feelings about the incident.” Teachers and educational professionals should be reliable, honest and dependable in order to provide a stable environment for students.
  • Offer support. One of the most important ways to help students cope is to listen to their feelings. Rather than trying to solve their problems, validate their feelings without judgement, English teacher and author Jessica Lahey suggests in The Atlantic.
  • Maintain safe, secure and positive school environments. Establish clear routines to minimize any feelings of loss of control. “Students feel safe when limits are understood, when teachers express clear timelines, expectations, and consequences,” Lahey says.
  • Limit exposure to media reports. The 24-hour news cycle often means that students are overexposed to coverage. This can cause fear and confusion, especially for younger children. Turn off TV reports as much as possible to limit exposure.
  • Help students understand what really happened. Give students factual information if they are confused and clarify any misunderstandings.
  • Make students feel safe. It may be a good idea, depending on students’ age, to have discussions about safety procedures so that they are aware there are plans in place and know what to expect.
  • Show students what people are doing to help. When students see that there are firefighters, police officers and volunteers helping victims after a traumatic event, it can help them feel more safe and secure.

Teachers and other educational leaders can’t ensure that students never experience traumatic events; however, “we can serve as allies, mentors, and role models through our relationships with them as they grow, recover, and begin to heal,” Lahey says.

West Virginia State University offers a fully online Master of Education in Instructional Leadership degree that prepares classroom teachers to expand their skills and advance to administrative and leadership roles. Through a curriculum focused on the latest techniques and concepts, this program is designed to help educators create pathways to success for both students and staff.