How to support students with trauma as school starts

How to support students with trauma as school starts

In a few days, 56 million students will return to school, and 19 million will attend colleges and universities. As educators, parents and community members, how do we help our youths process the horror of violence based on racial hatred that they are trying to make sense of?

Some might think that in a 24-hour news cycle, these mass shootings will fade in the memories of young people as they focus on the new academic year, friends and the business of school. Additionally, some might think that only students in or around the communities targeted by violence will be affected. Research shows that these assumptions are mistaken. 

In an increasingly interconnected world, students may have friends and families in communities directly impacted by violence. Further, the targeted nature of attacks on people based on their faith, race and ethnicity triggers our sense of safety and exacerbates existing racial and ethnic tensions. So as educators, parents and those otherwise invested in our young people, what can we do?

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First, we need to simply acknowledge that these acts of hatred have occurred. Every age cohort will require a different approach, but ignoring or glossing over these recent acts of violence sends a message that discussing our fears, concerns and sadness are not welcomed. 

When we as leaders validate those feelings, we allow young people to come forward with their own emotions. Many times, we can assist with referrals to counseling resources, or even just listen.

It is also important to note that people of the Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faiths, black people, Latino people and immigrants have been specifically targeted by violence. Vague references to “evil” mask the specificity and virulence of white nationalism — and diminish our ability to accurately call out what white nationalism intends to do: eliminate nonwhite people from this nation.

Second, we can be vigilant for signs of stress in students. Mass shootings can escalate anxiety and even trigger post-traumatic stress disorder. Less obvious manifestations can include eating disorders, self-harming behaviors and substance abuse. Caring adults should take note of changes in behavior and not be afraid to ask young people how they are coping with their lives, knowing that mass shootings — particularly those that have white nationalist motivations and target racial and religious communities — have an impact beyond the immediate time and place of the event.

This leads to a third significant action: We must ensure that support for young people is available not just in the immediate aftermath of acts of violence, but also in the weeks and months ahead. The combined imagery of seeing Latino children and families locked in cages, coupled with rhetoric referring to immigrants as an “infestation” and actual violence targeting Latino people will have a searing and long-term effect on youths. We have to have the courage to name white nationalism as the root cause of these acts of violence and resist the temptation to dilute the ugly motivation of such hate.

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It will take time and true effort from teachers, professors, school leaders, counselors, parents, faith leaders and community leaders to support our young people through this dark episode of American life.

These traumatic events will also spark discussion — which is healthy and needed. Educators and those who work with youths have an important responsibility in creating the environment where ideas and opinions can be shared in a productive way. Ensuring that discussions have agreed-upon norms and being sensitive to the emotional aspects of such conversations are critical. 

Out of the horrific violence of this season, we have an opportunity as a nation to pivot toward a complete disavowal of white supremacy and embrace our future — our youths — fully with these forms of support. History will surely judge us. Through our united efforts, the summer of 2019 could be followed by a season of healing. We will need to work together and ensure that we keep the mental well-being of our youths at the forefront, not just today, but into the future.

Richard Reddick is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy and an associate dean in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. He is co-editor of “Legacies of Brown: Multiracial Equity in American Education.”