Research shows

Classroom support helps kids survive trauma

Using the classroom as a support group is an effective way to help students heal from a traumatic event when all of the students have been exposed to the same trauma, as is the case in a natural disaster, according to a review of the literature on school crisis intervention programs by researcher Linda Leek Openshaw from Texas A&M University in an article in School Psychology International. Her review of the research found that classroom support groups also help the school community as a whole bounce back faster to its predisaster level of functioning.

Short-term classroom interventions are limited in frequency, time and intensity but must be of sufficient length for students to express their initial feelings of grief and loss. The primary goals of the intervention are to help the child feel safe and connected to supportive peers and adults and cope with feelings of loss and anxiety. According to the literature, those goals can be achieved with activities that allow students to express their feelings, such as journaling, drawing, listening to music, brainstorming ideas to offer support, researching related topics or creating a memory book.

In the final two to five minutes of a group activity, Openshaw writes, students can be encouraged to engage in a relaxation exercise to lower anxiety levels and end the group on a positive note. Something as simple as encouraging students to inhale and exhale slowly and deeply helps relieve tension.

According to the literature cited by Openshaw, the vast majority of students recover within three to six months of a traumatic event. However, some students may show signs of persistent problems that require more intensive intervention. Signs to watch out for, she writes, include a heightened sense of anxiety or hyper-vigilance, withdrawal or avoidance from classroom or school activities, inability to focus on tasks, inappropriate acting out or risk taking.

Openshaw cautions that educators who have been supporting students who have experienced trauma risk absorbing some of the trauma themselves and need to have supportive group opportunities to discuss their own experiences.

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