COVID has worsened student adversity and trauma – how can schools help?

Young girl sitting by a window looking upset

By Rowena Phair

Project Leader, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created and exacerbated stresses among children and young people. Many have been isolated from their friends, teachers, sports coaches and other supportive adults, and been confined to their homes. Financial, social and emotional stresses within families have often worsened, and some children have experienced greater violence at home. This is on top of the grief, fear and uncertainty that coronavirus has caused in many of our communities.

Many students had already experienced adversity or trauma

Children negatively affected by adversity or trauma are in every schooling system and every school. For example, the World Health Organisation estimates one in five girls and one in ten boys have experienced sexual abuse. In a class of 20, three students are likely to have had such devastating experiences.

While sexual abuse is one of the most debilitating traumas any child can experience, many children have other experiences that can negatively affect their well-being and ability to learn. These include:

  • parental neglect, abuse, abandonment or death
  • living in impoverished homes and neighbourhoods
  • experiences of discrimination, bullying and violence
  • being in foster care or a youth institution
  • living in conflict zones
  • displacement from their homes
  • natural disasters.

The effects of adversity and trauma undermine student learning and well-being

The effects of adversity and trauma can be devastating and long-lasting for students. When these negative effects are significant, students experience impaired cognitive functioning. This especially relates to memory and attention, making it difficult for students to learn. Students may also have difficulties in regulating their emotions and their emotional responses. This can lead to emotional outbursts or retreats and difficulties in interacting positively with peers and adults.

The effects of adversity and trauma can be devastating and long-lasting for students

If the effects of adversity and trauma are not reduced and addressed, the impacts on children and young people can worsen over time. Prolonged durations of stress and an accumulation of multiple stresses can take their toll, not only on student learning, but also on students’ mental and physical health and well-being. Such students are more likely to suffer from conditions such as depression and to adopt unhealthy or harmful behaviours, such as the use of alcohol or drugs.

Teachers also need support

Teachers who work with students who have experienced adversity or trauma can show signs of vicarious trauma, fatigue and burnout. Teachers may also be directly affected by the same issues affecting students, such as community violence or stress relating to a natural disaster or pandemic. Few education systems have mechanisms in place to support these teachers.

In addition, teachers are not always trained to recognise and respond effectively to meet the needs of students affected by adversity or trauma. Such students can demonstrate challenging behaviours, which teachers may misdiagnose and respond to in a punitive manner, further exacerbating the stress on students.

Schools can do a lot to support these students

Schools can make a huge difference for these students by taking three actions:

Graphic with text: Building strong social and emotional skills among students; Ensuring every student has at least one stable adult in their lives; Providing safe, positive learning environments

Social and emotional skills are key to resilience, helping children to cope with adverse or traumatic experiences and providing a protective buffer against future challenges in their lives. Social and emotional skills that build resilience include self-regulation, self-efficacy, conflict resolution and having a growth mindset. These skills can be effectively developed in children in the early years, prior to school, as well as throughout schooling.

Social and emotional skills are key to resilience, helping children to cope with adverse or traumatic experiences and providing a protective buffer against future challenges in their lives

Relationships with stable, reliable adults also build resilience in children and young people. For some children, the most stable adult in their lives is outside their home. This may be a teacher, a sports coach, a mentor, an older peer at their school or an adult in their community, such as an elder or a neighbour. During lockdowns, many children and youth have been prevented from having in-person contact with the adults they most rely on.

Unsafe schooling environments cause adversity and can add unmanageable levels of stress for students who are facing other challenges in their lives. Schools can improve the school environment through anti-bullying policies, including tackling cyber-bullying, and by using alternative disciplinary approaches, especially to avoid suspensions and exclusions. Student surveys show that schools with low exclusion rates have better school climates, for all students, than schools with high exclusion rates. The use of school climate assessment tools helps school leaders and teachers to monitor whether students feel safe and have a sense of belonging at their school.

Involving families and communities is critical

Strategies to support students work best when these are co-constructed with the students themselves, their families and communities. Schools cannot address students’ holistic needs and well-being on their own.

Partnerships between schools and families can support student well-being, but also have enduring benefits for student learning. This occurs when education is transformed from “walled-in schools and walled-out families” (Anderson-Butcher et al., 2010) to “family-like schools and school-like families” (Epstein, 2018). Students have the best possible chance in education when schools care for them as people and when families are active educators.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Uzhursky