A traumatic event is a sudden and unexpected occurrence that causes intense fear and may involve a threat of physical harm or actual physical harm. A traumatic experience may have a profound effect on the physical health, mental health, and development of the student.
How students process trauma depends on their age and level of development. By understanding how students experience traumatic events and how they express their lingering distress over the experience, school personnel can better respond and help them through this challenging time.
For students, a traumatic experience may cause ongoing feelings of concern for their own safety and the safety of others. These students may become preoccupied with thoughts about their actions during the event, often times experiencing guilt or shame over what they did or did not do at the time. They might engage in constant retelling of the traumatic event, or may describe being overwhelmed by their feelings of fear or sadness.
Preschool students may lose recently acquired developmental milestones and may increase behaviors such as bedwetting, thumbsucking, and regress to simpler speech. They may become more clingy to their parents and worry about their parents safety and return. These young students may also become more irritable with more temper tantrums and have more difficulty calming down. A few students may show the reverse behavior and become very withdrawn, subdued, or even mute after a traumatic event. These students may have difficulties falling or staying asleep or have nightmares about the event or other bad dreams. Typically these students will process the event through post-traumatic play.
Elementary students may show signs of distress through somatic complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, and pains. These students may have a change in behavior, such as increase irritability, aggression, and anger. Their behaviors may be inconsistent. These students may show a change in school performance and have impaired attention and concentration and more school absences. Late elementary students may excessively talk and ask persistent questions about the event.
These students exposed to a traumatic event feel self-conscious about their emotional responses to the event. They often experience feelings of shame and guilt about the traumatic event and may express fantasies about revenge and retribution. A traumatic event for adolescents may foster a radical shift in the way these students think about the world. Some of these adolescents may begin to engage in self-destructive or accident-prone behaviors, and reckless behaviors. There may be a shift in their interpersonal relationships with family members, teachers, and classmates. These students may show a change in their school performance, attendance, and behavior.
In spite of our ability to predict general responses to trauma depending on age and developmental level, there is still tremendous variability among students regarding post-traumatic symptoms and the extent to which learning and school behavior may be disrupted. The variety of individual responses to trauma is related to many factors, including a student?s prior history of trauma or loss, prior or current mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or behavior problems, and individual differences in temperament.
A traumatic event can seriously interrupt the school routine and the processes of teaching and learning. There are usually high levels of emotional upset, potential for disruptive behavior, or loss of student attendance unless efforts are made to reach out to students and staff with additional information and services. Students traumatized by exposure to violence have been shown to have lower grade point averages, more negative remarks in their cumulative records, and more reported absences from school than other students. They may have increased difficulties concentrating and learning at school and may engage in unusually reckless or aggressive behavior. Click here for a vignette on the way a single event affected three students differently .
The involvement of the school is critical in supporting students through the emotional and physical challenges they may face following an exposure to a traumatic event. Click here for information on Readiness, Response, and Recovery.