Supporting Stressed Students (and Staff)

Child wearing a white shirt standing in front of an adult man who is sitting in  an armchair, gesturing with his hands.

Some subscribers have mentioned they're dealing with extra stressors and traumas recently. To support you, we've compiled some information on stress and trauma, specifically in school settings. Keeping in mind that we never aim to provide medical advice, we hope these resources will help you. Much of the content summarized here stems from the work of Travis Wright, an expert in schooling amidst student stress and trauma, and an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. All quotations are references from his work.

Stress and Trauma in Children

Children experience stress and trauma differently from adults. Wright describes trauma as "not an event in itself, but... instead the reaction to extremely stressful life circumstances." Children have less control in their life events and experiences. Because of this, children's reactions to stressors should be recognized as adaptations to circumstances in their lives. The interactions students have with their school environments can either contribute to the stress or help to alleviate it. In particular, creating positive and supportive relationships with these children is crucial. These experiences - both positive and negative - can have major impacts on students' development. 

Common Signs and Symptoms of Traumatic Stress

Behaviors Academic

Anxiety, worry, fears of abandonment

Anger, agitation, aggression

Withdrawal from social interaction


Discomfort or decreased ability to handle transitions

Heightened startle responses to sudden stimuli (bells, loud sounds, physical contact)

Self-harm or talk of self-harm

"Acting out" or tantrums

Below grade level performance or dropped GPA

Decreased reading ability

Difficulty with language and verbal processing

Decreased executive functioning, such as:

  • Focus, and concentration
  • Memory and recall
  • Organization and processing of information
  • Ability to solve problems


Any one of these symptoms, and certainly all combinations, can affect students' ability to learn. Wright reminds educators that it is important to remember that "children's behavior is not alway under their control. Increasingly, researchers are learning that traumatic responses are dictated by the body's stress response system."

Creating a Supportive School Environment

Regardless of your role in a traumatized student's life, creating space for and actively working to create a positive, trusting, stable relationship can be the first step to supporting their healing. Often, students who have experienced a stressor exhibit one or more of the behaviors listed above. These behaviors make it difficult for them to create and maintain relationships with their peers and other adults. A single positive relationship can help to reverse the effects of the stressful event and provide an opening for the student to experience more positive effects of social interactions. By simply being interested in students' lives and remembering details about the stories they tell, you can create that comforting space that can lead to a trusting relationship. Remember that school might be the most stable and consistent element of some students' lives. The following strategies can also help to both create a safe space and provide opportunities for you to observe and recognize students who may need extra support.

  • Structured activities for group and individual play or work -
    • Book groups with a variety of access options provide both individual and group experiences.
    • Use characters from popular books and media to discuss every day experiences.
  • Quiet, safe spaces for taking "brain breaks"
    • Stressed students may need more breaks from academic work because their biological stress response requires so much additional energy. 
    • Make age-appropriate comfortable, safe spaces where students can "recharge" with some privacy.
  • Modeling and providing role-playing opportunities for joining groups and resolving conflicts
    • Make note of interactions that can be used as teachable moments. Revisit at a later time to take pressure off of the individuals involved and provide prompts for journaling or group discussion.
    • Choose to read books as a group that deal with adjacent content - if a student is dealing with a divorce, read a title about a family going through a different transition.
  • Providing "word tool kits" and terminology for students to describe their emotions, experiences, and interactions
    • Students may want to talk about their feelings and experiences, but not have the words that feel right. Include new terms and definitions in word studies.
    • Make stories available that describe a wide variety of emotions, feelings, and experiences.
    • Highlight words in stories that are used to describe characters' experiences, explaining how words can describe different situations. For example, speaking quietly can indicate conspiratorial, exciting conversation if it's happening before a surprise party, but it can also describe a character's sadness if they're speaking to themselves about a distressing event.

For more information on stress and trauma, please consider the titles below. The National Traumatic Stress Network also provides many helpful resources. For more on stress, and how to support yourself or staff, click here.

12503-1Never Look Back by Lilliam Rivera

Eury comes to the Bronx as a girl haunted. Haunted by losing everything in Hurricane Maria - and by an evil spirit, Ato. She fully expects the tragedy that befell her and her family in Puerto Rico to catch up with her in New York. Yet, for a time, she can almost set this fear aside, because there's this boy... Pheus is charmer, ready to spend the summer on the beach with his friends, serenading his on-again, off-again flame. That changes when he meets Eury. All he wants is to put a smile on her face and fight off her demons. But some dangers are too powerful for even the strongest love, and as the world threatens to tear them apart, Eury and Pheus must fight for each other and their lives. Lilliam Rivera reimagines the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a timely story about cultural identity, overcoming trauma, and the power of first love.

12651-1The Tradition by Jericho Brown

Winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Jericho Brown's daring book The Tradition details the normalization of evil and its history at the intersection of the past and the personal. Brown's poetic concerns are both broad and intimate, and at their very core a distillation of the incredibly human: What is safety? Who is this nation? Where does freedom truly lie? Brown makes mythical pastorals to question the terrors to which we've become accustomed, and to celebrate how we survive. Poems of fatherhood, legacy, blackness, queerness, worship, and trauma are propelled into stunning clarity by Brown's mastery, and his invention of the duplex-a combination of the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues-is testament to his formal skill. The Tradition is a cutting and necessary collection, relentless in its quest for survival while reveling in a celebration of contradiction.

12939The Racial Healing Handbook by Anneliese A. Singh

Healing from racism is a journey that often involves reliving trauma and experiencing feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety. This journey can be a bumpy ride, and before we begin healing, we need to gain an understanding of the role history plays in racial/ethnic myths and stereotypes. In so many ways, to heal from racism, you must re-educate yourself and unlearn the processes of racism. This book is not just about ending racial harm-it is about racial liberation. This journey is one that we must take together. It promises the possibility of moving through this pain and grief to experience the hope, resilience, and freedom that helps you not only self-actualize, but also makes the world a better place.

12625Resilience (HBR Emotional Intelligence Series)

How do some people bounce back with vigor from daily setbacks, professional crises, or even intense personal trauma? This book reveals the key traits of those who emerge stronger from challenges, helps you train your brain to withstand the stresses of daily life, and presents an approach to an effective career reboot. This collection of articles from HBR includes "How Resilience Works"; "Resilience for the Rest of Us"; "How to Evaluate, Manage, and Strengthen Your Resilience"; "Find the Coaching in Criticism"; "Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters"; and "Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure".

13807Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing by David Richo

Psychotherapist David Richo examines the science of triggers and our reactions of fear, anger, and sadness. He helps us understand why our bodies respond before our minds have a chance to make sense of a situation. By looking deeply at the roots of what provokes us-the words, actions, and even sensory elements like smell-we find opportunities to understand the origins of our triggers and train our bodies to remain calm in the face of painful memories. The book offers in-the-moment exercises on how to process difficult emotions and physical manifestations in order to to cultivate the inner resources necessary to deal with recurring memories of trauma. Explore what your body's knee-jerk reactions can teach you. Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing acts as a guide to your body's powerful responses, helping you to remain calm under pressure and discover the key to emotional healing.

12201Why Therapy Works: Using Our Minds to Change Our Brains by Louis Cozolino

In Why Therapy Works, Louis Cozolino explains the mechanisms of psychotherapeutic change from the bottom up, beginning with the brain, and how brains have evolved-especially how brains evolved to learn, unlearn, and relearn, which is at the basis of lasting psychological change. Listeners will learn why therapists have to look beyond just words, diagnoses, and presenting problems to the inner histories of their clients in order to discover paths to positive change. The book also shows how our brains have evolved into social organs and how our interpersonal lives are a source of both pain and power. Listeners will explore with Cozolino how our brains are programmed to connect in intimate relationships and come to understand the debilitating effects of anxiety, stress, and trauma. Finally, the book will lead to an understanding of the power of story and narratives for fostering self-regulation, neural integration, and positive change.

13335Healing Ourselves Whole: An Interactive Guide to Release Pain and Trauma by Emily A. Francis

Healing Ourselves Whole will give you the tools you need to clean your emotional house from top to bottom. As a trained body worker, Emily Francis offers a refreshing perspective into healing trauma. She reveals unique knowledge of the body as a holder for memory. Emily will lead you on a path deep within yourself to rearrange the ways that pain and trauma have been holding you back from whole body, mind, spirit, and energy healing. The meditations will help you dig deep into past trauma and discover when and how trauma took root. Learn to get in touch with various parts of the physical and energy body, and how to use them to let go of stored traumas and rediscover the deeply held joys that have also been stored within the body. From this, you will learn to live from a new mindful and powerful space.

12823Trauma and Dissociation-Informed Psychotherapy: Relational Healing and the Therapeutic Connection by Elizabeth Howell

A fresh look at the importance of dissociation in understanding trauma. A new model of therapeutic action, one that heals trauma and dissociation, is overtaking the mental-health field. It is not just trauma, but the dissociation of the self, that causes emotional pain and difficulties in functioning. This book discusses how people are universally subject to trauma, what trauma is, and how to understand and work with normative as well as extreme dissociation. Elizabeth Howell explains the dissociative, relational, and attachment reasons that people blame and punish themselves. She covers the difference between repression and dissociation, and how Freud's exclusive focus on repression and the one-person fantasy Oedipal model impeded recognition of the serious consequences of external trauma, including child abuse. The book synthesizes trauma/dissociation perspectives and addresses new structural models.



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