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Helping Students Cope with Trauma and Loss: Online Training for School Personnel with Helene Jackson, Ph.D.
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This course was edited by Sharon Kay. The project was developed by the Columbia University School of Social Work with support from the Bank Street College of Education.

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Childhood Trauma: Retraumatization

You may have noticed that students who have been exposed to trauma and/or loss are likely to reexperience stress-response symptoms after being exposed to new traumas, reminders of an original trauma, or secondary stresses related to the trauma. The extent to which students will be affected by a traumatic event will very much depend on how often they are reminded of the trauma and the nature and severity of secondary stresses.

Traumatic Reminders

Traumatic reminders are associated with events that are perceived by individuals to be related to a trauma and/or traumatic loss. Some events, such as holidays, anniversaries, and prolonged media coverage, will likely affect most students. Other triggers, such as a change in climate, a particular smell, or a song may acquire special meaning for a particular student, but not have meaning for others. Reminders, particularly those that are unanticipated can trigger severe reactions of fear and helplessness. They can also interfere with age-appropriate developmental tasks that are essential to family, peer, and school functioning. 12

Many parents believe that if children don't talk about a traumatic event, they have forgotten it. However, we know that most are unlikely to bring up their trauma-related anxieties unless given permission to do so. Thus, there is a need to educate parents about the importance of giving children the opportunity, when possible, to anticipate and to talk about their feelings and concerns related to traumatic reminders. This need is illustrated in the following anecdote in which a teacher at a school near the site of the former World Trade Center describes her attempts to help her students anticipate the closing of Ground Zero.

I got some very angry reactions from parents that I had spoken about it in school, and why did I need to remind their children about it, because their children had forgotten.

Fourth-Grade Teacher near the World Trade Center:
We were warned before it happened that we might hear a lot of noise from the memorial, and that the noise could include anything from music, like bagpipes, to sirens, to aircraft. It was our responsibility to let kids know that they might hear something. If they heard a noise without a warning, especially with our experience with low-flying aircraft that it would have been—could've been—terrifying, you know.

And we talked in my fourth-grade class about the fact that this is a style of military tribute. Sometimes military tributes are noisy, they involve aircraft or they involve shooting guns into the air, and it's a way that the military sometimes honors people, and it was not a signal of danger. I got some very angry reactions from parents that I had spoken about it in school, and why did I need to remind their children about it, because their children had forgotten.

But in the following couple of days a lot of anxiety reemerged in play. And fourth graders aren't as transparent as kindergartners, you know. They're more subtle with their play, and they're more guarded with what they show adults. But it was almost this regressive thing that was happening where they were building cube towers and knocking them over from across the room

Secondary Stresses

Secondary stresses, such as losing one’s home, can increase the risk for developing posttraumatic stress disorder
Photo by Adam DuBrowa / FEMA News Photo

Following a trauma, students and their families may be subjected to additional stress resulting from life-changes prompted by the traumatic event. These may include a move to another city or neighborhood, a change in schools, diminished academic performance, health problems, financial hardship, and in some cases, loss of family and social support. 12 All of these factors can increase the risk of children developing posttraumatic stress disorder and other emotional disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social phobia, and panic disorder.

Impact on School Personnel

The ability of children to recover from trauma depends to a large degree on the coping skills of adults like you who make up their world. In order to meet the needs of your students in the aftermath of trauma, it is critical to ensure that your own physical, psychological and spiritual health is not neglected.

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