Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures
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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Schools can provide a climate of stability for students and staff during and after a disaster.

Keeping calm and restoring a sense of safety for school personnel and students are essential aspects of providing leadership in a crisis. As administrators, your behavior is a model for your staff and colleagues. It is vital that adequate assistance to school personnel, who may themselves have been traumatized, be offered as soon as possible. Programs for parents that provide educational and, when indicated, therapeutic interventions for themselves and their children are also essential. 24


In order to promote students' recovery, an infrastructure must be put in place to provide support to school personnel. Assistance for staff should be available at the same time students are offered mental-health interventions. In each school, personnel need to come together to talk, to express their feelings and concerns about themselves and their students, and to grieve. 12 In cases of major disasters, where entire schools are required to evacuate to other schools for long periods of time, this is especially important in order to minimize the fracturing of the school community.


In anticipation of a crisis, specific protocols for how to organize communications, evacuations, rescue attempts and relief measures should be developed and put in place with input from school personnel, students and parents. 30, 29 Information on how to access the communication systems that will inform school personnel, students, and parents about what is expected of them during a crisis should be circulated on the Web, in newsletters, and handouts. 30

Designating one teacher on each floor to alert other teachers and staff of a crisis, and requiring regularly scheduled practice drills can be reassuring. Telephone trees should be created to ensure that teachers and parents are kept up-to-date during an emergency. Contact information should be updated periodically to assure access to parents and caretakers when necessary. Instructions on how to manage the media should be distributed to all school personnel. 29 Requiring school personnel to document in each student's health records, any known prior and current exposure to traumatic events, traumatic reminders, and secondary stresses can help avoid mislabeling and mistreatment of students who have been traumatized.

Teachers' Needs

Healing from psychic trauma is a process that takes time. After a trauma, it is unrealistic to expect that people can quickly pick up where they left off. Without informed leadership, well-meaning efforts to "get back on track" are likely to cause even more stress, as expressed by a fourth-grade teacher who, in the midst of the chaos of 9/11, had evacuated her students to another school.

Fourth-grade teacher: I think that there just hadn't been enough time for us to even begin to process what had happened
to us. . . .

I think one thing that happened was that it took a while for people to absorb the scope of the disaster. So I know that two days after it happened we were asked to come to the . . . the office of our district, and I remember coming in late so I missed the beginning, but the focus of the meeting at that time was how we were going to manage the kids when they came back to school.

I think that there just hadn't been enough time for us to even begin to process what had happened to us, and teachers began to get increasingly angry at the suggestion that we needed to ready ourselves to take care of kids, because I think that we realized in that moment that it was almost inconceivable that we . . . we had . . . were barely, you know, so many of us were probably not sleeping or not eating or disoriented. Some of us hadn't gone home at that point. And, you know, there were certainly those of us who were still looking for people that we knew.

When a major disaster has occurred, special consideration should be given to teachers whose students were killed or badly injured, lost family members, were displaced from their homes, or experienced financial losses. 12 But remember that all members of the school community should be given the opportunity to ventilate, to participate in planning, and to put the traumatic event into words. 18

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