A Closer Look

Trauma, Stress, and the Postpandemic Opening of School: Let’s Not Pathologize Students’ Emotional Needs

The social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs of all students during this pandemic clearly is of great concern. But as school psychologists, we need to help the educators with whom we work go beyond the “popular press” versions of our students’ needs, and look at their real needs from a data-based, psychological, science-to-practice perspective.

On May 6, 2020, Education Week published an Opinion piece written by Dr. Kathleen Minke, the Executive Director of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

The substance and content in the article were excellent, as they encouraged readers to recognize that school psychologists are available to help in a myriad of social, emotional, behavioral, instructional, and school–home collaborative ways. Dr. Minke especially emphasized that we should help (a) students find the informal and formal supports they need when, for example, experiencing stress, loss, abuse, panic, or feelings of self-harm; and (b) schools get ready to evaluate and address the presence of students’ general and pandemic-specific social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenges when they return to school.

To accomplish this, Dr. Minke recommended that schools and districts (a) develop a long-term recovery plan; (b) assess, don’t assume; (c) develop a resource map; and (d) provide professional development and emotional care for adults.

So, where’s the problem?

The problem is the sensationalized title of the piece (which, to be clear, was created by Education Week and not by Dr. Minke):

The Pandemic Is Causing Widespread Emotional Trauma. Schools Must Be Ready to Help 

The primary concern is that no large-scale, objective, multifaceted data has been collected yet on students’ current emotional status, and no one knows how many students have actually been traumatized—in a causal sense—by the pandemic. 

The Points to Consider

  • First of all, I know of no schools in this country where students—at this point in time—have been formally or accurately evaluated to validate the clinical presence of emotional trauma.
  • Second, without these assessments—and a definition of widespread—no school psychologist that I know would characterize the current needs of our students as widespread.
  • Third, any assessment would need to review a student’s preexisting social, emotional, and behavioral history and status; include observations and interviews; and involve multiple assessment instruments to “rule out” or “weigh in” any independent, comorbid, or combined physical, medical, or emotional factors or conditions related to the pandemic.
  • Fourth, while a student might be traumatized by the pandemic itself (for example, due to an obsessive fear of getting sick), it is more likely that any confirmed traumas will be due to the effects of circumstances or life events triggered by the pandemic. Examples of such effects might include the death of a parent, domestic violence, physical abuse, witnessing illegal drug use, or the exacerbation of a preexisting mental health condition due to social isolation.
  • Finally, all of the principles and actions within the steps above are essential to determine (a) the actual presence of a student’s social, emotional, or behavioral concerns; (b) the root causes of any needs, and the depth, breadth, and severity of their impact; and (c) whether the needs can be successfully addressed by teachers as part of a whole-class intervention, or whether they require more specialized small group or individual interventions delivered by counselors, social workers, or school psychologists.

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The Education Week title increases the risk that educators will prejudge and pathologize the emotional impact of how their students have lived, learned, socialized, and survived their pandemic stay-at-home time and circumstances.

And in this frame of pathology, it is likely that far too many students will be inaccurately seen as being traumatized, having deficits, needing sympathy, or requiring therapeutic services—when they reenter school with different levels of emotionality and behavior this fall (or thereafter).

Instead, as school psychologists, we need to help our colleagues and schools to (a) immediately create and then sustain the positive, prosocial, relationship-driven school and classroom settings for all students on the first day that schools reopen; (b) approach students from a strengths-based perspective; and (c) complete assessments to determine the root causes when students present with significant social, emotional, or behavioral challenges—rather than assume that these challenges are due to events related to the pandemic.

Finally, we need to help our colleagues understand that, when students return to school, they will exhibit different levels of social, emotional, and behavioral variability, and that this is normal and expected. We do not need to be giving students messages that they are somehow emotionally broken because they demonstrate this variability.

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This is not the time for the media to use fear, sensationalism, or emotional triggers to get readers’ attention, satisfy their funders or benefactors, or implicitly or explicitly sell their beliefs or orientations. This is the time for common sense, empathy, objectivity, facts, and data-based decision-making.

We need to act as conscious leaders and caring adults as we support our students through these times. We need to understand and build on their existing and emerging strengths. And we need to “provide great benefits” and “do no harm” as we prepare to welcome our students back to school … socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and academically.

Related Webinar: Enhancing Trauma Sensitive Schools: Addressing Students' Multi-Tiered Emotional Self-Regulation Needs

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About the Author

Howie Knoff, PhD
Howie Knoff, PhD, NCSP, is an international consultant, speaker, and author specializing in school improvement and strategic planning, social–emotional learning and social skills training, multitiered systems of support, and interventions with behaviorally challenging students. He is a practitioner who has also been a university professor (22 years), and state department of education federal grant director (13 years). The author of 24 books and 100+ articles/book chapters, he was the 21st President of NASP. His Project ACHIEVE website is www.projectachieve.info, and he can be reached at knoffprojectachieve@earthlink.net