Guide to Coping After Mass Trauma: School Grief Counseling Techniques

School counselors increasingly work with students who have experienced trauma.

Children learn all too soon how tough life can be. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that more than two-thirds of children surveyed by a U.S. government task force on children and trauma have experienced a traumatic event by age 16. Any event that risks injury, death or “the physical integrity of self or others” may be traumatic. Trauma can result from anything that causes “horror, terror or hopelessness at the time it occurs.”

The detrimental effects of trauma often persist long after the triggering event. The impact is compounded when children experience multiple traumatic events, according to the government report. These children exhibit behaviors that parallel those of other mental illnesses:

  • Expressing new fears
  • Nightmares and other sleep disturbances
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Sadness
  • Anger and irritability
  • Separation anxiety

Children and adolescents are resilient, and over time they can overcome the negative impact of trauma. Most children return to functioning as they had before the event after only a few weeks or months. However, recovery can be difficult for children who have experienced multiple traumatic events, have a history of anxiety or have a difficult home life.

This guide to grief counseling techniques is intended to help prepare educators to support and comfort students in the aftermath of an event that traumatizes the children and adults who experience it. It will describe how trauma affects children of various ages and the best ways teachers and administrators can respond to traumatic events.


What Children Need in the Immediate Aftermath of a Traumatic Event

The triggering event for trauma may be as widely shared as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or as personal as witnessing or surviving a major traffic accident. Regardless of the source of the trauma, children and adolescents need support and understanding as they work through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

The Child Mind Institute describes the steps to take right after children or adolescents experience a traumatic event:

  • Make sure they feel safe. You can reassure them by giving them a hug, holding their hand or simply patting them on the back.
  • Stick to their normal routine as much as possible. Eating meals at their normal times and following other daily or weekly routines help reestablish a feeling of familiarity in children.
  • Talk to them about what happened. Be honest about the event, but avoid going into detail. Be sure to encourage their questions, because children may not have the same concerns as adults would have.
  • Remind them to have fun. Encourage children to play with others and to return to favorite activities, which can help them feel like things are returning to normal.
  • Let them recover in their own way. Some children may want to spend more time with friends and family, while others will prefer to be alone. Children need to know that it’s OK to feel angry, sad, frustrated or guilty and to share with others how they’re feeling.
  • Let them know you’re listening. Be understanding about how children feel, but avoid lecturing or dismissing their feelings. It’s better to say “I can see that you’re worried” than to say “Oh, don’t worry.” When necessary, don’t hesitate to answer by saying “I don’t know.”

HelpGuide recommends minimizing the child’s exposure to media coverage of the event that caused the trauma or events similar to it. Make an extra effort to keep children engaged, giving them opportunities to express how they’re feeling and validating their concerns when they tell you about them. Especially for young children, it’s important to remind them frequently that you love them, that it wasn’t their fault and that it’s OK for them to feel upset or afraid.


How Children Are Affected by Various Types of Trauma

Each child responds uniquely to traumatic events. The reaction of children and adolescents is influenced by their developmental level, their cultural background, whether they’ve experienced other trauma in the past and pre-existing family problems, among other factors. Verywell Mind reports that 3% to 15% of girls and 1% to 6% of boys who experience trauma will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This causes them to relive the traumatic event repeatedly; they may also avoid anything that reminds them of the event or recreate it while playing.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) describes the effects of different forms of trauma on children in various age groups. For example, trauma that occurs before age 6 has been downplayed in the past because young children are unable to verbally express how they’re feeling. However, research indicates that even very young children may be harmed by threats to their safety or the safety of their caregivers. In addition to being traumatized by intentional violence and natural or human-made disasters, young children may respond in the same way to a painful medical procedure or the departure of a parent or caregiver.

Similarly, Verywell Mind states that school-age children may suffer from nightmares or insomnia after experiencing trauma, and they may feel guilt, shame, anxiety or fear. Teens who have experienced trauma may develop eating disorders, engage in self-harm, abuse drugs or alcohol, act dangerously or impulsively, or isolate themselves.

The NCTSN explains the impact of other types of trauma on children:

  • Childhood traumatic grief occurs when someone close to the child passes away. The loss will affect children differently based on their understanding of death: Young children’s responses may relate primarily to the way their families and others close to them react to the event, while older children may withdraw, try to act as if nothing happened or otherwise avoid confronting the loss. However, children of all ages may respond to traumatic grief with changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, sadness, anger, anxiety, persistent thoughts of death and avoidance of anything that reminds them of the person they lost.
  • Physical abuse can have devastating, long-term effects on children of all ages, especially when the source of the abuse is a person whom the child depends on for protection. Young children often respond by becoming aggressive themselves, while others show little or no reaction; they may lose their flight-or-fight response when they’re hit by others. Older children may find it difficult to develop and maintain friendships. They may also lose respect for authority and feel bad about themselves or demonstrate other PTSD symptoms, such as withdrawal, anxiety and depression.
  • Community violence is defined as interpersonal violence committed in public areas between people who aren’t related to the child. When children and adolescents witness such violence, it can make them feel unsafe, causing them to shift into “survivor mode”: always prepared for a flight-or-fight response, distrustful of anyone, and fearful about their future and the future of their loved ones.
  • Complex trauma occurs when a child is exposed to multiple traumatic events. Children who experience complex trauma never feel safe and tend to slip into survivor mode, withholding their emotions and presenting a stoic front. As these children get older, the survivor mode response can impede their recovery.


How Educators Can Meet the Needs of Children Coping with Trauma

Schools can play an important role in helping children recover from traumatic events by creating strong extended support systems, including peer-to-peer support for students of all ages. In the immediate aftermath of trauma, children will respond in ways that may disrupt classroom instruction and other school activities. The National Center for Children in Poverty recommends that schools take the following measures to help children cope soon after experiencing trauma:

  • Be present in the children’s lives. Children who can recover quickly from the impact of trauma have someone in their lives who they know they can count on for nurture and support. Usually this person is a parent or an adult caregiver, but educators also contribute to the continuity and stability that children recovering from trauma crave.
  • Provide children with a safe haven. An environment that promotes safety and trust lets children who’ve experienced a traumatic event regain a sense of control and predictability. Having such a controlled environment also helps to prevent the children from encountering a trigger that brings the trauma back to mind, whether it be certain smells, sounds or sudden movements.
  • Promote children’s self-regulation skills. Young children in particular are still learning how to calm themselves, communicate clearly, and establish healthy relationships with peers and adults. By modeling self-regulation as they interact with children recovering from trauma, teachers are able to demonstrate and encourage self-regulation techniques that children can use when they begin to feel stress or other trauma triggers.


Coping with the Long-Term Effects of Mass Trauma on Children

Children who experience trauma are at an increased risk of suffering chronic health conditions throughout their lives. They also face a greater risk of premature death. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes the potential long-term impacts of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including an increased likelihood of falling victim to the following conditions:

  • Traumatic brain injury, fractures and burns
  • Depression, anxiety, suicide and PTSD
  • Unintended pregnancy, pregnancy complications and fetal death
  • HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
  • Cancer and diabetes
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Lower education, occupation and income levels

Among the long-term responses by educators to traumatic events experienced by their students are to develop communication approaches for specific post-traumatic situations, understand how those approaches will change over time, and prepare teachers to take advantage of their unique position to weave the grieving process naturally into their lessons.


Create a ‘Whole School’ Strategy for Responding to Trauma

To assist schools in helping students overcome the short- and long-term impacts of trauma, the NCTSN has devised a framework for developing and sustaining “trauma-informed” schools. The three-tiered framework covers all grades and involves all members of the education community: administrators, teachers, students, families and community members.

The first of the framework’s three tiers is creating a safe, positive school environment to promote healthy, successful students. This tier involves the entire school community as well as mental health organizations, law enforcement and other youth- and family-focused organizations in the community.

The second tier of the trauma-informed school framework involves early intervention and identification of students and staff most at risk from the detrimental effects of trauma. This is accomplished by screening programs, group interventions, threat assessment and peer support. It involves contributions from all school staff members, families and local mental health organizations.

The third tier of the model is intensive support for individual children and families that is geared to the specific type of trauma the child has experienced. This involves forming partnerships between school communities, families and mental health professionals.


Training Educators to Understand the Needs of Children Recovering From Trauma

Teachers play an important role in promoting healthy habits and lifestyles to their students, yet they can’t be expected to become mental health providers, as child psychologist Colleen Cicchetti explains on Chalkbeat, an education news website. At the same time, teachers must understand how trauma can prevent them from succeeding at their jobs as educators. Whether the effects of trauma manifest as disruptive behavior in class or frequent complaints of stomachaches or other ailments, the result is an inability to focus on learning.

The symptoms of trauma in children include lack of focus, agitation, anxiety and tiredness from lack of sleep. In some schools, teachers can complete a request for assistance that’s submitted to a social worker or the school’s behavioral health team. According to Cicchetti, some teachers hesitate to admit that they’re struggling with a student, yet they must remember that the school is charged with educating the “whole child,” which often requires a team approach.


School Grief Counseling Techniques and Resources

Educators regularly interact with students who’ve experienced trauma, whether mass trauma or trauma due to their parents’ divorce or separation, the passing of a family member, changing schools or coping with the effects of a family member’s serious illness. The ASCD (formerly the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development) points out that few teachers receive formal training in how to respond to trauma in their students. The result is that educators tend to be hesitant to intervene when they suspect one of their students may be suffering from the effects of trauma.

When educators fail to acknowledge a student’s trauma, the child may conclude that teachers don’t care about the damaging effects of the trauma or that they’re unwilling or unable to help, according to a pediatrician quoted by the ASCD. Students who’ve experienced a traumatic event are usually “ready to be guided” back to health once they understand that they’re not at fault, that the emotions they’re experiencing are normal and that in time they’ll begin to feel better.

The manner in which you communicate with a child in the aftermath of a traumatic event is equally important. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Health and Human Services Administration offers tips for communicating with a child or an adult who’s experiencing traumatic grief:

  • Make eye contact with the person and maintain an open posture.
  • Speak calmly and warmly, expressing empathy and listening attentively.
  • Speak slowly, use direct language and be factual, but keep a soft tone and avoid generalizations, such as “Everything will be OK.”
  • If you ask questions, make sure they’re straightforward and easy for the person to answer.
  • Be attentive to the person’s body language, looking for signs that the person may prefer to be left alone.


Prepare Response Plans for Various Traumatic Scenarios

The NCTSN explains that the first step in devising a structured approach for responding to the effects of trauma in children is to assess existing policies and programs intended to address the impact of traumatic events on students and teachers. When educators observe signs that a student may have been affected by trauma, they make a behavior referral and initiate an evidence-based screening process. If traumatic/loss stress reactions are present, a more comprehensive evaluation will indicate the best way for educators to intervene based on the unique needs of the student and the type of trauma experienced.

The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments has prepared a Trauma-Sensitive Schools Training Package designed to help schools train teachers to respond effectively to the effects of trauma in children. The four-part program uses activities and discussion questions to describe who’s most likely to be affected by specific types of trauma, how the stress response system works, how exposure to trauma will impact students and how schools can mitigate the negative impact of trauma on children.


How to Identify Students Who Are Most Vulnerable to Trauma

Children of various ages respond very differently to trauma. The Child Mind Institute explains how the effects of trauma are likely to be exhibited by different age groups:

  • Children ages 2 to 5 may talk repeatedly about the event and perhaps act it out; they may also be more fearful and irritable; cling to caregivers; and revert to early behavior, such as thumb-sucking.
  • Children ages 6 to 11 may be more aggressive, anxious, moody or sad; they may refuse to discuss the event or deny that it occurred, withdraw from family and friends, and struggle with memory and concentration.
  • Children ages 12 to 18 may avoid exhibiting any feelings, dwell on the event obsessively, fear for the future, struggle in school or refuse to attend, and engage in risky or illegal activities.


How Schools Can Create Safe Harbors for Students

The National Education Association has released guidelines intended to help educators to address the causes of traumatic stress that disrupt a child’s ability to learn, beginning with making each child feel safe. For example, schools can set a goal to ensure that every student receives at least five positive greetings between arriving at school each day and the beginning of the first class.

Other actions schools can take to reassure students are to let them gain a sense of control; teach emotional skills, such as gratitude, respect and empathy; develop their short-term working memory; teach them to express themselves in writing; instruct them in mindfulness techniques and self-regulation; and listen to their stories.


Resources to Help Teachers Respond Effectively to Traumatized Students

The University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine points out that for many students, school is the only place they feel safe enough to form trusting, enduring relationships. This can make the impact of trauma on these children even more devastating. Trauma-informed learning is a grief counseling technique that replaces the question, What is wrong with this student? with the question, What has this student been through? and ultimately, What does this student need to reach their potential?

The goal of trauma-informed learning is to enable healing and growth to occur simultaneously, but to be successful, the programs must be supported with individual counseling, safety and crisis plans, behavior plans, and self-care plans to minimize the impact of triggers. Classroom teachers can’t be expected to provide such services to their students alone, but by focusing on building positive relationships, they lay the groundwork for a schoolwide and peer-supported strategy for helping traumatized students return to health.


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