We’re sure we can all agree that the start of this school year will be unlike any we’ve seen before. That’s because we are in unprecedented territory when it comes to the effects of COVID-19 on educational systems. Layer on top of that the environmental and societal aspect of the racial protests, the high numbers of death, unemployment, and countless other experiences people are facing in 2020. We have entered a new reality, one that affects everyone in different ways, not the least of which are students and teachers. What you may see in the classroom at the start of the school year, quite simply, are the effects of trauma.

What exactly is trauma? Trauma is the physiological or psychological response to an event that exceeds one’s ability to cope. Let’s break that down. Trauma is a response to an event, not the event itself. Two people can experience the same event and have very different experiences, such as siblings who experience a parent’s divorce very differently based on age, maturity, temperament, personality, or other life experiences. Trauma is also both physiological (body) and psychological (mind). This means that sometimes our bodies respond to trauma through physical outbursts, crying, or completely shutting down. And sometimes our minds respond to trauma in the form of depression, anger or anxiety.

Never in recent history have we seen an event in the way our world is experiencing COVID. We’ve never had such a large-scale collective trauma that affects both adults and children simultaneously, for an extended period of time, with no clear end in sight. What this means is that both teachers and children are likely experiencing various levels of trauma.

This collective trauma is manifesting itself in two main ways.


There’s certainly cause for anxiety in such an uncertain time. And as school starts again, we can expect to see anxiety ramp up even further. Many people have been in some version of a cocoon the last few months, limiting social interactions and spending more time with a closer circle. As schools start to reopen and people start to leave their warm, safe cocoons, we can expect to see separation anxiety. Many teachers have expressed anxiety about returning to work, and parents are anxious about sending their children back to classrooms. Children who have been home longer than usual are also likely to have anxiety about being away from home for the first time in a long time.


Grief always accompanies trauma. Yet we don’t always notice or talk about the grief aspect of trauma. With all that is happening around us at this moment in time, there is more than enough grief to go around. People are grieving loved ones lost to the virus as well as grieving the loss of jobs, financial stability, planned experiences, time with loved ones and a general loss of control about our daily lives. We live in a world where we can’t even go to the grocery store or meet a friend without the threat of the virus looming, and it is normal that we will feel grief during this time.

So what does this all mean? What will this look like as children and adults head back to school this fall? How might this trauma show up?

Here are some behaviors we may see in children as we head back into classrooms this fall. Behaviors typically fall into two categories: acting out or acting in. It’s important to note that trauma activates a “fight, flight or freeze” response. We don’t choose how we respond when we are in a state of trauma – the system responds to the stressor automatically.

Acting Out Behaviors

Acting out behaviors are those we typically think of when we picture “bad” behavior. Children who act out do things such as hitting, throwing objects, slamming a wall, shouting, lying, or starting fights with peers. These children are acting upon the “fight” or “flight” portion of the “fight, flight or freeze” response.

Acting In Behaviors

Acting in behaviors are more easily missed because they often don’t demand as much attention. These behaviors include things such as withdrawing, hiding, running away, keeping one’s head on their desk, becoming depressed or sullen, or being unresponsive.

As the school year starts back up, teachers can expect to see both acting out and acting in behaviors from children. In a virtual teaching setting, more kids may fall into the acting in category, and may seem to disappear, remain quiet, or not log in to the classroom environment at all.

We say all of this not to scare teachers, but to prepare teachers. When we see behavior that falls outside of the range of normal, or behavior that seems out of character for a particular child, we must stop and look at the behavior through the lens of trauma. What else could be behind the behavior? Is the child experiencing anxiety or grief or both?

Remember – behavior is communication. Children are not yet equipped to process the ongoing trauma that so many have endured over the last several months. The way they process this trauma will likely spill out in the form of behavior. As teachers, we must always stop and chase the why behind the behavior. This school year more than ever, we must all practice patience and understanding as we work through this collective experience together.

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