Today over half of the children in the United States suffer from a form of trauma. Often teachers are the individuals who indirectly experience students' traumatic events and deal with the impact that it has on student behavior and academic performance. It is more common than realized for teachers to encounter students in extreme situations such as homeless, deceased parents, parents who are incarcerated, and more. However, it is less common for teachers to be supported as they navigate the impact that student trauma has on them.
Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), also known as “compassion fatigue” or the effects of tending to another individual's traumatic experiences, create very real symptoms in many professions such as law enforcement, and nursing. STS is technically defined as emotional distress that emerges when someone vicariously experiences the traumatic experiences of another individual. As educators are becoming more aware of trauma-informed practices within schools, they are also realizing just how much secondary trauma is an important part of the conversation. In order to best serve their students and maintain their own health, educators must be alert to the signs of secondary traumatic stress in themselves and their coworkers. Trauma-informed schools should recognize practices that help educators identify secondary trauma and practice strategies to guard against or heal from the effects of STS.
What are the Symptoms of STS?
The biggest reason that Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) goes unnoticed is that educators and leadership do not know the signs and symptoms. They often get into the flow of the daily tasks and fail to take intentional action on trauma not only on the behalf of student's but for their educators as well. Trauma in teachers can provoke fatigue, burnout, and affect classroom and work performance which can ultimately lead to low retention rates, poor performance, and lower student achievement. The effects of Secondary Traumatic Stress can have an interpersonal, emotional, spiritual cognitive, professional, behavioral, and even physical effect on educators. Here are some of the symptoms of STS in educators:
- Increased anxiety and concerns about safety
- Intrusive negative thoughts and images related to students' traumatic stories
- Fatigue and physical complaints
- Feelings of numbness or detachment from students and peers
- Diminished concentration and difficulty with decision making
- Desire to physically or emotionally withdraw from others
- Feelings of professional inadequacy
The first step in combating the negative effects of STS is to learn to identify the symptoms. Secondly, learning ways that it can be prevented and managed helps minimize the amount of educators experience with it and how they experience it. Students feel the effects of Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) more than you know through teacher absence, teacher performance, and even termination. If we aim to address the whole of how trauma has an effect on schools, it is worth it to place emphasis on how educators are affected and what we can do to prevent or manage STS.
Preventing Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS)
The process of empathy is what makes the best teachers effective in some cases; However, empathy is what makes teachers especially vulnerable as well as it pertains to STS. Fortunately, there are ways districts/schools can prevent the impact of STS and help maintain the wellness of the teachers. Promoting, encouraging, and providing opportunities for the following can help to mitigate the impact of STS on teachers;
- Encourage Educators to Understand the Wellness Domains; Implementing informational meetings on wellness. This requires balance on all domains such as occupation, physical, social, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional.
- Informing Educators on how to Keep Self Care Simple; Educators can develop daily self-care routines that involve deliberately taking care of your wellness. For example a day at the spa or beauty salon. Create SMART goals for every area (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely). Sometimes these can be as simple as getting adequate sleep, personal affirmations, physical exercise, eating better, and even spending time with friends.
- Providing Avenues for Educators to Receive Support from Administration; Change policies and prioritize mental health and wellness for all employees. As stated before providing time during meetings and providing training and support can help prevent the early signs of STS
Nonetheless, awareness is the answer to managing STS, or any trauma in school districts for that matter. Sharing the signs of STS with teachers and creating frequent conversations in schools about wellness and signs of STS will help mitigate its effects. Certain circumstances can cause educators to be more susceptible to secondary traumatic stress such as personal exposure to traumatic events, direct contact with children’s traumatic situations, and helping others while neglecting themselves. Most of these are causes for teachers in schools that have students that are in poverty, or in need. Secondary trauma can have an impact on all areas of an individual's life and it can have an effect that ranges from mild to debilitating for educators. Recognizing and addressing the signs of STS in school districts is another way we can combat the effects of trauma within the education community.
Trauma & Student Learning
This blog series will touch on the impact and influence of trauma in education. Each week we will touch on how trauma affects effective instruction through teachers, students, and administrators. We aim to inform educators of the threats that trauma has on student learning and hope to continue discussing how we can provide equitable access to quality learning within our schools. We can’t eliminate traumatic experiences outside of our schools; however, we can do our best to provide a safe place and healing experiences for our students by recognizing the impact of trauma and educating and inspiring new knowledge.
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