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Navigating Trauma in the Digital Classroom

October 17, 2020 by Janessa Fletcher




Navigating Trauma in the Digital Classroom… sounds almost impossible doesn’t it?

I found myself once again staring towards the black cube on my Google Meet.  I glance around at the rest of my class and I see actively engaged students, smiling faces, curious looks, but I look back towards the glaring black square looking back at me.  All I see are the white letters of my student’s name because the student refuses to turn on their camera.  Before I started assuming that this student was just being defiant, if sitting there at all, I began to look at the situation from a ‘trauma-lens’.  

Perhaps this student is embarrassed of their home environment (how it looks, set up of their space, cleanliness), displaying behavioral defiance, or the student is just so anxious and their apprehension to school deepened.   How can I connect with this student through a screen?  How can I allow them to feel comfortable enough to let their guards down and literally turn on their camera into their world?  Many teachers are not therapists, myself included, but there are several ways we can conduct our day to day schedules with a “trauma-informed lens”.

Foster a Feeling of Safety

Distance learning can link to more social emotional concerns than most educators realize; unfortunately, some students cannot escape stressors or abuse in the home, lack social social skills, or are more prone to depression from a sense of isolation. Creating a safe environment, just as one does in a brick and mortar classroom, is a good place to start when navigating trauma in the digital classroom. 

  • Build a supportive and sensitive environment. 
  • Allow students to utilize the chat box when appropriate instead of raising their hands or calling upon them.
  • Another great option for students is to provide a choice of how to actively engage in your lesson.  Depending on what platform you are utilizing you may have the option to use the reactions, nods or the react function. Although each named their own respectively, they serve the same function: to promote feedback and participation.  The options range from hand raise, thumbs up, and emojis to name a few.  
  • Utilize specific positive praise.  Using this method of response provides the child with the knowledge of exactly what they did right and what to repeat in the future.  “I really like how you raised your hand to answer my question.”  “Thank you for using the chat box to answer the math problem.”  “Great job unmuting your microphone to share the answer.”

Predictability and Consistency

Let’s face it, our current situation can put anyone on high alert.  With the introduction of Covid-19  into our world our daily routines have suddenly changed and some families are experiencing sudden loss and economic hardship.  Maintaining predictability and consistency is very important to allow students to maintain a sense of security.

  • Set up an online routine that is as consistent as possible throughout the week.  As it were in brick and mortar, students know for example that “every day after Math we have our snack time”.  This carries over easily into the digital world.  You can use the following free resource from Education to the Core to create your own class schedule for you and your students.   
  • Explain changes and provide an agenda.  Change is inevitable, but we can prepare students that it will happen and explain when and why it does.  When creating a schedule, you can insert a fun eye catching symbol or picture to gain the students attention when a change arises.  I would suggest to use one picture and keep it the same so students know whenever they see that image, it means that there is a change in the schedule.  
  • With fewer direct interactions, directions may get lost in translation and some tasks may feel more overwhelming.  Break down the assignment or directions into easily managed steps.  
  • Please don’t assume.  Don’t assume that students know how to use the reactions option appropriately and with purpose. Taking the time to teach expectations paired with positive specific praise will save you time in the long haul. 

Navigate Trauma Through Thoughtful Interactions

It is unfortunate for me to note, but every child has lost some aspect of physical presence of appropriate role models in their lives; whether it be teachers or staff members in the school, grandparents or other family members,  or community members.  Now more than ever we want to make sure we are present as can be in our students’ lives.  

  • Actively listen.  Allow time for students to share their stories, ask questions, and refer back to something that they may have said or shared at another time.  This shows that you listened and more importantly you remembered! 
  • Traumatized children often behave in ways that may interfere with your teaching, which can be extremely frustrating.  Don’t get upset or frustrated.  In a behavioral context it is important to learn what the function is or why it occurs. Why is the student doing what they are doing and how can I appropriately interact with them during this time?  
  • Allow expressions of feelings and acknowledge that it is okay to feel that way.  Words like “quarantine”, “death”, “social distance” are scary and sad. It is okay to be scared and sad.  It is also okay to acknowledge their feelings and express the similarities with your own. 
  • Ask open ended questions.   Make time to ask students about something fun they are doing or planning to do.  Other examples may include: “What can you do to make tomorrow better?”, “Today was fun because _____.”, or “What magical power do you wish you had?”. 

Start the Day with Positive Class Interactions Through Morning Meeting Slides

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but ones that I hold dear during this unpredictable virtual endeavor we are all experiencing in one way or another.  In the beginning of this blog post I spoke about a student not complying to turn on their camera.  Does that mean that every student that doesn’t have their camera on is experiencing trauma?  No.  Does this mean that those students who are actively participating with their cameras on, unmuting and answering questions are not experiencing trauma? No.   Trauma in itself is not about the knowledge of it, but how we view it.  Sandra Bloom (2007) sums it up to help change the paradigm from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”.  It is okay to put your priorities on relationships and well-being over compliance.  That is how we are going to Navigate Trauma in the Digital Classroom.  

When creating a trauma-conscious classroom, strategies such as these may be beneficial not only for students who have experienced trauma, but also students that may have not.  Having this mindset of ‘trauma-informed’, as a teacher, will prove beneficial in the time to come because I do feel we may be seeing this pandemic and our current events having more of an effect on children and individuals than we realize.  

~ Written by: Christopher Olson

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