Expert advice on helping kids return to school with a trauma-informed approach

Dr. Marsac

We recently spoke with pediatric psychologist Meghan Marsac, PhD, about how the COVID-19 pandemic might make it more challenging for some students to return to in-person school, what signs parents should look for if they’re worried their child has experienced trauma or is struggling, and what they can do to help.

Marsac, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics, College of Medicineand faculty associate at the University of Kentucky Center on Trauma and Children, specializes in training medical teams to implement trauma-informed care. A trauma-informed approach recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms and responds to the impact of traumatic stress.

What signs could indicate a child is struggling with returning to school?

For many kids, it may take a few weeks to get used to being back in school. A little nervousness or trouble sleeping for a few days is normal. Some kids may need a little time to get used to being with others or out of the house (especially if their family has restricted social contact during COVID). Many kids are more tired as they get used to new school routines. 

After a couple weeks of the new school routine, signs that a child might need more help adjusting could include:

  • difficulty sleeping
  • bad dreams
  • tiredness
  • changes in eating
  • changes in their mood (for example, withdrawing from family and friends)
  • becoming quickly frustrated or irritable
  • not being interested in their usual activities

Some kids might argue or refuse to go to school or do their work. Other kids may cry more than usual before or after school. 

Signs that educators can keep an eye out for include fatigue during the school day, difficulty understanding or following instructions, not engaging with other kids or having a hard time starting or completing schoolwork.  

What are signs that a child may be experiencing traumatic stress symptoms?

The pandemic has resulted in many people experiencing new potentially traumatic events such as new economic struggles, exposure to abuse and/or other violence, challenging medical diagnoses or events (COVID-19 or other medical conditions), or loss of loved ones. Many of these potentially traumatic events have affected children.

Trauma reactions include:

  • Avoidance: Avoiding talking or thinking about the traumatic event or people or places that remind you of it.
  • Re-experiencing: Memories popping in unexpectedly, flashbacks, bad dreams, re-enacting event in play or art work.
  • Hyperarousal: Being jumpy, having trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, increased aggression or irritability, feelings of guilt.
  • Changes in mood or thoughts: Feeling more down or more anxious, loss of interest in activities.

If a parent sees signs their child has experienced trauma or is struggling with the return to school, what steps should they take? 

A great first step is to reach out to your child’s pediatrician or school counselor with your concerns. They can talk with you and assess your child or help you find a referral for more help.

If you have concerns about keeping your child safe, such as fears they might self-harm, you should bring them to the emergency room for an evaluation. 

How might the pandemic be affecting children who wouldn't otherwise have struggled with returning to school?

The pandemic has painted a layer of stress across the board. Most families have additional stress related to the pandemic, which means our kids are exposed to more stress. Kids carry this stress to school. 

Some children have been exposed to additional potentially traumatic events during the pandemic, such as abuse or family economic struggles. This can make concentrating and learning more challenging.

Children have likely experienced mixed messages about the pandemic and how to stay safe. For some, returning to the classroom might feel scary because they are worried about getting COVID-19 at school. 

How can parents and educators use a trauma-informed approach to help students who are struggling?

A first step is awareness of both what many of our children may be carrying with them to school as well as the additional stressors that parents and educators are facing. This has been a really hard year for many kids, families and teachers. Keeping this in mind can help us to all give each other grace as we navigate this unprecedented time. 

Parents and educators can also work together to recognize signs of stress or traumatic stress in kids. We can do this by watching our kids’ behaviors and setting aside time to listen to them describe their school day. We can ask kids about the best part of the day and the hardest part of the day regularly so that kids know that we are ready to listen to the good stuff and the hard stuff. We can help our kids learn who to ask for help when they need it. This can include talking to a trusted family member, family friend, teacher, other school professional, counselor or doctor.

When we recognize signs of stress or trauma, we can get our kids more help by reaching out to our pediatricians, school counselors or other mental health professionals.

Baillee McCane BSN, RN, Injury Prevention and Outreach Coordinator, Trauma/Surgical Services at UK HealthCare, contributed to this article.

This content was produced by UK HealthCare Brand Strategy.

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