Creating a Safe Environment
The most important challenge following a trauma is to reassure your students of their safety and security. It is essential to be honest: never promise anything you can't deliver. Rather, let students know that you will do everything you can to protect them. You can accomplish this by maintaining consistency in the classroom, scheduling specific times for schoolwork and special times to discuss students' questions and concerns about the traumatic event.
How you respond to traumatized students will influence the long-term impact of their intense experience. Thus, it is as important to keep track of your own reactions to a traumatic event as it is to monitor your students' reactions. If you are aware of, and comfortable with, your own traumatic experiences and your feelings about trauma, death, and dying, you are in a better position to provide a safe and nurturing climate for students who are trying to cope with the aftereffects of trauma.
Whenever possible, anticipating with your students any upcoming traumatic reminders, such as memorials, anniversaries, and holidays, can minimize severe trauma-related reactions. Your nonjudgmental acceptance of students' thoughts and feelings, your capacity to answer their questions calmly, your ability to correct misperceptions gently, and to set limits on frightening or threatening talk and behavior will reinforce students' feelings of safety. Reminding students of times when they have successfully coped with new and scary situations will reassure them that they have the psychological, physical, and social resources to do so again. 13 Maintaining communication with other teachers, school counselors, parents, and caretakers in order to monitor how students are doing is critical. Remember, emotional healing takes time.
Teachers have told us that another major challenge is to maintain a balance between their students' emotional and academic needs. During and after a traumatic event, particularly one that affects the school community, it is not unusual to have increased absences and declines in academic performance. Parents may complain that their children aren't learning enough.
As a result, you may feel guilty that you and your students aren't keeping up with the demands of the curriculum, as in the case of a teacher whose students witnessed the World Trade Center attacks from their school one block away:
Third-Grade Teacher Eight Months After 9/11:
How much can we actually give to these kids academically this year? Every teacher that I've spoken to in this building has expressed that the guilt is beyond overwhelming. I didn't even do handwriting for a second this year, I'm this far behind in math and I'm this far behind in reading. And intellectually we all know we have to let some things go by thewayside, but you know what? That guilt doesn't go away. . . .
For the mental health of you and your students, it is crucial that you revise your expectations of yourself as a teacher and of your students' academic performance. Taking care of your own emotional needs is essential. Further, the emotional needs of your students are as important as their academic needs; one cannot progress without the other.