This is a trying time for all kids, but it can be particularly scary and confusing for some children. Fortunately, school psychologists across the nation are providing critical support for students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you’re a school psychologist, you’re well aware of how important it is to be informed and prepared when it comes to dealing with trauma. With this in mind, our team of educational professionals has compiled this refresher to aid school psychologists in helping their students thrive during this challenging period. It gives an overview of trauma and brain functions, tips for helping your students process pandemic stressors, and guidance for meeting with students for the very first time.
About Trauma: A Refresher
Trauma is an overwhelming experience that involves a threat to one’s sense of safety. It can be a single event or multiple events.
"Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and physical, social emotional, or spiritual wellbeing" (SAMHSA).
The Brain and Its Functions: An Overview
The Brain Stem
The brain stem is considered the survival brain.
It is focused on the present.
The brain stem asks, Am I safe?
The Limbic System
The limbic system or mid brain is home to the amygdala, which acts as a safety radar.
It holds memories, emotions, past hurts, and experiences.
It is focused on the past.
The limbic system asks, Can I trust you?
The Pre-frontal Cortex
The pre-frontal cortex is the thinking brain and deals with high-level functioning.
It can plan and consider consequences, follow logic, and solve problems.
It focuses on the future.
The pre-frontal cortex asks, What can I do about this? What might happen?
When the amygdala in the limbic system is overactive, the pre-frontal cortex becomes impaired. (NIH) This means students who are experiencing trauma cannot learn effectively.
School psychologists can play an active role in helping children process traumatic events and relieve stress. That way, these students will have a better chance of staying afloat in school and not falling behind.
After all, most of us can recall at least one school psychologist, counselor, coach, teacher, or other educational professional who was a touchstone for us during tough times. It may only take one person to help a student make it through. As a school psychologist, you are uniquely positioned to be that one person.
How School Psychologists Can Help Children Process Pandemic Stress and Trauma
When counseling students during COVID:
- Don’t pretend everything is okay; children pick up when adults are not genuine and honest
- Provide appropriate reassurance but don’t give false reassurance
- Find out the student’s fears, concerns, and worries
- Don’t tell students they shouldn’t be worried; instead, help them learn to deal with their uncertainty and fear (listen and validate emotions)
- Include positive information; present a hopeful perspective
- Avoid fear-based approaches (i.e., trying to reassure students by telling them “It could be worse” is likely to make them think it will get worse)
School Psychologist Tips for Initial Meetings With Children
When meeting students for the first time:
- Introduce yourself with thoughtful details, share something interesting
- Explain your role and purpose for the meeting
- Identify the day and time you will be providing services (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly)
- Maintain the same schedule throughout the year for consistency and routine
- When possible, give students a choice of time and class you will be pulling them from
- Discuss the best way to call a student out of class
- Many students feel self-conscious about receiving services and don’t want their classmates to know the reason they are being pulled out. You can establish a secret signal with the student and teacher to make the procedure discreet
- If group sessions work best with the schedule, try to speak with each member individually first to discuss preferences and boundaries
Thanks for reading our resource on helping children with COVID trauma. We hope you find it a useful addition to your school psychologist toolkit.
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