What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: how School District Leaders can encourage post-traumatic growth in their students.

 “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”; as we navigate the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, this old cliché might sound a little trite, or even hopelessly optimistic. But, as with many of our well-worn adages, this one contains more than a nugget of wisdom.

While traumatic events, whether individual or collective, can lead to chronic stress, long-term mental health problems or stunted growth, such outcomes aren’t a foregone conclusion.

In fact, research indicates that 30-70% of individuals who experience trauma actually report positive changes and growth following their recovery from those events (Joseph & Butler, 2010). 

With the right support, corrective experiences, and appropriate resources, post-traumatic growth theory suggests that our young people could emerge from this pandemic with a wide range of unexpected benefits, such as greater empathy and compassion, a more profound appreciation for life, newfound personal skills, and an unexpected resilience.

Navigating a shared trauma.

Of course, ensuring such a positive outcome won’t necessarily be easy for our teachers, administrators, parents, and caregivers.

An estimated 377 million students are currently out of school and may be struggling in a variety of ways. Some will be mourning the loss of normality and expected rites of passage such as graduation or prom, while others will be suffering due to isolation and loss of contact with extended family and friends. Our more vulnerable students who come from chaotic home environments have lost their only safe space.

The pandemic poses a very real threat. Not only have our young people lost their usual way of life, their plans for their immediate future, and their sense of self, but they now fear for their safety and the safety of their loved ones.

Recognizing trauma.

It’s hugely worrying, yes. But please be assured that you as School District Leaders, and your teaching and administrative staff, have a wonderful opportunity to help create a positive outcome for the young people in your care.

The first step in helping students emerge from this global crisis with newfound resilience and personal strength is to recognize the signs of trauma as they arise; increased worry or fear, preoccupation with mortality, hyper-vigilance, and mood and behavioral changes are all early warning signs to be aware of.

School closures and distance learning do, of course, present challenges but there are ways for educators to remain vigilant even while they engage with their students virtually.

Teachers should be encouraged to note any shifts in students’ academic performance, unexpected difficulty in meeting deadlines, and written content that indicates emotional pain. Counseling staff should be encouraged to monitor at-risk students, whether through virtual counseling sessions or checking in via telephone. And schools should consider offering parents and caregivers virtual training and resources to help them recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma and mental illness in their children.

The importance of modeling.

This pandemic represents an unexpected overwhelming and collective wounding — the very definition of a traumatic crisis — it’s important that School District Leaders and Superintendents recognize that every member of our global community has been impacted, not just students and their families.

Our educators, class teachers, school counselors, and administrators are facing challenges of their own.

·       Teachers are working longer hours as they struggle to navigate online teaching for the first time. Getting used to working from home is hard, particularly for teaching staff that have their own children at home.

·       Administrators have had to make difficult decisions about staff layoffs and managing the collective trauma experience.

·       And, much like their students, our educators and administrators are dealing with their own feelings of anxiety, loss, and grief.

However, it’s important that during this period, educators remain mindful of the risk of emotional contagion and do what they can to control which of their own emotional responses trickle down to students and families.

To help, School District Leaders should encourage staff to follow the same guidelines they’d issue to students and families; taking the time to take care of themselves, managing stress, finding new routines, seeking psychological support if necessary, and making full use of any support provided by the school district.

Remind educators of their power to inspire their students to find meaning in the crisis by becoming involved in their community, finding ways to help those in need, and acting with empathy and compassion.

This is their opportunity to model appropriate emotional expression and management and utilization of support, and doing so will not only encourage greater resilience amongst students, but amongst our educators themselves.

If your district has been required to make sudden changes as a result of the covid-19 crisis, please consider taking the following steps to make lemonade out of lemons:     

The COVID-19 pandemic will have far-reaching consequences for everyone in the education system. However, whether the impact includes the loss of a loved one, financial stress, loss of school routine, or disconnection and isolation from friends, it’s important to remember that we’re all carrying this experience together. And with the right support systems in place, you, your staff, and the young people in your care will be able to emerge from it stronger and more resilient.

Together we can foster a generation that can rise to unexpected challenges; a generation that acts with compassion and kindness, that engages with their community, and that has an immense gratitude and appreciation for life itself.

We can prove that with the right support, we can all live up to the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” 

iOpening Enterprises created the Bridge Trauma-Informed & Culturally Responsive (TICR) program to help school systems create trauma-informed and psychologically safe environments that celebrate the student as a whole person. When student’s basic and emotional needs are addressed, they are able to thrive academically. For years, the Bridge TICR program has helped many schools deliver promising outcomes that support both improved teacher-student relationships and policies that create safer and more inclusive classrooms. To learn more about Bridge TICR contact us at customercare@iopeningenterprises.com or 310-694-6008. 

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