Why are we seeing unprecedented levels of need in school communities?

This is the second in our series of blog posts, which explore key takeaways from TLPI’s discussions with trauma-sensitive school leaders as they embark on the fourth pandemic school year. They have so generously shared with us their reflections on how the trauma lens informs their school’s response to the many challenges facing students, families, and educators.

children in classroom looking up from desks

Key Learning: Because of the pandemic’s disruption of in-person learning, major social and developmental milestones passed without the usual support and preparation that comes with being part of the school community and its routines, structures, and traditions.

We know that schools play a significant role in supporting not only a young person’s academic development but their healthy social-emotional development as well. Disruptions from the pandemic have undermined school’s supportive role, especially for those students at critical transitional stages.  Students who were in Pre-K when the pandemic began returned as first-graders to in-person learning. Pre-pandemic 5th graders returned to school as 7th graders, and high school freshmen left school in March 2020 and returned as juniors in September 2021. As one trauma-sensitive district leader noted, “those are huge jumps to make without traditional schooling in between.”

The pandemic has highlighted for all of us that schools are not only a place where students develop knowledge and skill, they are also important communities for young people, providing opportunities for them to grow connections with caring adults, form friendships with peers, and develop interpersonal skills. In a given day, a student engages with the school community by taking advantage of the many opportunities it offers (delving deeply into a favorite subject matter and sharing the joy of a new learning with a peer, playing games or eating lunch with friends, finding support for a difficult issue and being encouraged by caring teachers).

The period of remote learning left many students feeling isolated and anxious as the connections to their peers and caring adults at school fell away or as their challenging life circumstances exacerbated. Younger students lacked opportunities to learn and practice critical social emotional regulation skills and the same opportunities to scaffold their success toward academic growth were lacking. Many older students experienced a sense of being adrift, on their own, to manage the uncertainty of adolescence and all that comes with this critical developmental stage.  As students returned to school, the ability to readjust to the day-to-day schedule, academic workload demands, and peer interactions has been a great struggle causing many students to experience distress.  Schools across the country report escalating rates of anxiety and depression among students, along with increases in disruptive behavior. So, while educators expected academic, developmental, and social gaps for students upon their return to school, what seems to be unexpected is the depth and breadth of needs.

How does thinking about this help us understand what to do differently? How do we create opportunities to support the growth that will address these gaps and bolster these missing skills? For trauma-sensitive schools, having the shared understanding of the traumatic nature of the pandemic and its impact on students’ academics, behavior and relationships provides the touchstone for where to begin to respond to these student needs and in getting that response right. Trauma-sensitive schools focus on creating, for ALL students, a sense of safety, connection, and belonging through their work to build strong relationships with one another as staff and with students and their families.

“This pandemic has caused us to re-evaluate how we were connecting. . . and inspired us to find better, more innovative and meaningful ways to engage with our students and their families.” 

– Elementary School Principal

What comes to mind as you think about what your current students may have missed out on, in terms of the social and emotional development stages/skills that were not able to be reinforced through everyday time together in school?  And how are those gaps showing up in your classroom today?

Please stay tuned for our next blog to learn more about how trauma-sensitive school leaders focus on creating learning environments that are safe havens, where students are met “where they are” and supported as such to re-connect, to develop needed skills, and to maintain their physical and emotional health and well-being.

If you would like more information on the What, Why and How of creating trauma-sensitive schools, please visit our Tools and Resources Section. 

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