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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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Teacher Interventions: Classroom Activities

Group Discussions

Group discussions should be part of the normal school routine. They offer students an opportunity to express themselves and to discuss, with their peers, their reactions to traumatic events. 17 But remember, not all students will want to join in a group discussion about trauma. Some would rather sit silently and listen; others may want to talk to the teacher or school counselor privately; still others may not want to talk at all. These preferences should always be taken seriously. In the group, it's important to respect silence, but also to be aware that you may be able to address some universal concerns such as a general discussion of safety and a review of school safety rules.

Group discussions are a great way for students to realize that others in the group are having similar thoughts, feelings, and concerns, and that they are not "crazy." Another advantage to group discussions is that you are in a position to observe and identify students who may be symptomatic and who should be referred to the school counselor. Groups also allow you to gather information about the extent to which students are being exposed to excessive media coverage, traumatic reminders, and secondary stresses.

The following is a dramatization of a group discussion between middle-school students and their teacher. Forced to flee to safety during the World Trade Center attacks, they were relocated to a new and temporary school. The discussion conveys their feelings of anxiety and their teacher's response.

In this video role-play, a teacher encourages students to share their fears and anger after they were forced to relocate to a new school following a disaster.

Mr. Gutierrez: Okay, it's time for us to sit in a circle and talk about what we're thinking and feeling. Some of you have told me that you're very upset about having to be in another school.

Sally: I hate this school. I loved our old school. I'm afraid we'll never go back. It feels like things will never be the same.

Mr. Gutierrez: I know how you feel. I wish we could be back at our school too, but everyone is working very hard to get us back there as soon as possible. Just think how great it will be when we go back. Maybe we can all draw a picture of what we miss most and hang it in our new classroom. Then when we move back, we can hang them in our old classroom.

Jose: What if there's another attack and we all get killed?
Tony: Yeah, I'm worried too. My dad says the government is doing everything to make sure we're all safe . . . and my dad always tells the truth, but maybe he's wrong?

Jane: I worry about that, too, sometimes . . . you know how, on TV or in the movies, they make it look like the world is coming to an end? I get very scared, and sometimes when I go to sleep I have horrible nightmares. But I asked my mom and she told me that's just science fiction . . . they're just made up. They're not real. They just want to scare people.

Mr. Guitierrez: You know, we all feel scared sometimes. That's why it's so important that we talk to each other about what worries us. It helps us to find out that we're all feeling the same way. Maybe we could help each other by sharing some of the things we do to make us feel better when we begin to feel frightened.

Tony: When I get scared, I try to think of times when I've been happy, like when my team won at basketball. That makes me feel good, and I don't think about the bad things so much.

Jane: I like to write in my journal about the fun times I've had on vacation.

Tony: When I feel scared or sad, I play my guitar.

Mr. Guitierrez: Those are all great ideas. Whenever I'm upset I try to go to the park and look at all the beautiful trees and flowers. That makes me feel calm and peaceful. Maybe we could all spend the last few minutes of the group relaxing by taking some deep breaths and thinking about all the different things we can do that make us feel good.

It's important to note that students' willingness to share with the teacher and each other will probably not occur until the group has been together long enough to have established trust. Your role in the group is to provide an environment in which students feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings. Remember, it is essential to end discussions on a positive note and allow some time for quiet reflection. 17

In this video role-play, the teacher leads his students in group relaxation exercises. He provides a safe environment where they can begin to reduce the stress they're under.

Classroom exercises that focus on relaxation, group support, and problem-solving skills increase students' ability to learn, manage stress, expand concentration, encourage mastery, and build self-esteem. Regardless of a student's age, or the type, degree and duration of trauma, the following techniques can be integrated into normal classroom activities: 17

  • relaxation exercises
  • journals, drawings, and paintings
  • physical-education classes
  • role-plays
Drawing promotes creativity and can reduce physical and emotional stress.

These activities teach students how to calm themselves, relieve tension, and to express their traumatic memories directly or indirectly.

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