COVID-19 recovery presents an opportunity to fill critical gaps in knowledge about equipping schools to address trauma

BlogCOVID-19May 21 2020

State and local decision makers are in the process of determining how and when schools should reopen following COVID-19 related closures. The Council for Chief State School Officers recently noted that reopening plans must include not only considerations for academics and social distancing, but must also provide for trauma-informed supports. For schools that did not offer any mental health treatment services before COVID-19—nearly 60 percent of all schools—supporting students experiencing trauma will largely fall on teachers and other non-clinical staff. Unfortunately, there is an alarming lack of evidence as to what works in equipping classroom teachers and other non-clinical staff with the ability to address trauma.

We recently published a review of school-based, trauma-focused interventions in the Journal of School Mental Health that identified several well-established clinical interventions. Although we identified several tools and guidance documents intended for non-clinical staff, few have been rigorously evaluated. While such tools could be effective, without evaluations we do not know how large such effects are, whether there are any unintended negative effects, and for whom the interventions work best.

Additionally, few publications address the interplay of trauma and race in schools, and those that do have not been evaluated. There are significant racial inequities in children’s experiences of adversity—often driven by experiences of systemic racism—which increase the risk of experiencing trauma. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate these existing inequities.

In the absence of evidence-based guidance for teachers and other non-clinical staff, there remain several steps that state and local decision makers can take to equip schools to create learning environments that support all students, including those who are experiencing trauma. In particular, decision makers should review how current policies and practices, such as those on school discipline and addressing school meal debt, may further inequities, adversities, and trauma. As schools implement available guidance and trainings for teachers, states should also prioritize evaluating these efforts.

COVID-19 presents unprecedented challenges for schools across the country. However, the pandemic also offers an opportunity to focus national attention on the ways in which schools can effectively address trauma. Many students will return to school having experienced increased adversity and trauma related to COVID-19, including increased risk of child maltreatment, domestic violence, food insecurity, and homelessness. With timely investments in evaluation, we can leverage this experience to determine the best ways to equip teachers and other non-clinical staff to support students experiencing trauma.