Committee for Children Blog

Getting Children Ready to Learn: Tips for Educators and Families

Parent and child looking at a computer

These are challenging times for everyone, including kids. As the new school year gets underway, you’ll likely encounter students affected by the stressful and traumatic events of this year. To help you support their emotional well-being, we asked our experts Bridgid Normand, special advisor for learning and impact, and Jasmine Williams, senior research scientist, to provide some insight on the effects of the pandemic on children—and what you as an educator can do to help.

Q: How do trauma and stress affect children’s readiness for learning?

A: When children or adolescents are exposed to traumatic events or situations, and this exposure overwhelms their ability to cope, they experience what’s called child traumatic stress. This type of stress has negative effects on young people’s social, behavioral, physical, and academic development.1 Their sense of safety is threatened, and they can become easily triggered to act out or withdraw. Children who have previously experienced trauma and are already living with traumatic stress—such as food insecurity—are at higher risk of being further traumatized by the COVID-19 pandemic and other stressors, including:

  • Missing friends, extended family, and their community
  • The intensity of being home and away from school
  • Economic stress at home
  • Illness or death of loved ones
  • This year’s destructive weather events and fires on the West coast
  • The continuing fight for justice for all Americans

In response to these challenges, students might tell you they’re having headaches, stomachaches, poor concentration, intrusive thoughts, or difficulty sleeping—all potential symptoms of trauma or stress. You might also see decreased levels of engagement and achievement compared to prior school years. Students might respond to stress by withdrawing or shutting down, or they could experience increased anxiety, irritability, anger, or fear. They may show an increase in self-destructive or risk-taking behaviors, exhibit signs of depression, express negative beliefs, or become more reactive to peers, teachers, and caregivers.

These are all common stress responses that can make it harder for students to focus on or be interested in learning. You may also notice that you are experiencing some of these symptoms.  

Q: How can you as an educator help students cope with stress and reengage with learning?

A: As previously stated, traumatic stress is related to a child feeling overwhelmed, not able to cope, and unsafe. No child can learn unless they feel safe.

The foundational priority for you as an educator is to ensure students feel connected to each other, to you, and to the school community. You can foster these connections through frequent check-ins—both in group settings and with individual students—that focus on students’ emotional well-being. Additionally, students should feel accepted and valued. You can nurture these positive feelings through culturally responsive teaching practices.

Self-regulation skills, including emotion management, can also help students manage strong feelings like anger, frustration, or worry. These skills might be taught through explicit social-emotional learning (SEL) instruction and teacher modeling, or by showing students how you as their teacher cope with and manage your stress. It’s also important that students avoid re-traumatization. You can help them with this by setting norms for peer-to-peer communications and by talking about cyberbullying, including what it is and how to avoid it.

In these times, especially in remote-learning settings, it’s important to be flexible and accommodating where you can. When checking in with your students, be sure to ask if they have everything they need to be successful and how they think you can support them. If students need explicit help, you can provide them with targeted accommodations to address their individual needs. Here are a few resources geared toward remote and hybrid learning that might be helpful.

It’s critical to help students feel psychologically safe. You can help create this sense of safety by:

  • Being warm and friendly
  • Showing that you care about students’ well-being
  • Asking about how students are feeling
  • Giving students opportunities to talk about how they’re doing
  • Not avoiding the topic of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Creating a consistent routine for students’ home learning

It’s also important to take care of yourself and your own emotional well-being. We’ve created a free resource designed to help you manage and respond to traumatic situations; the resource also provides you with specific strategies to better care for yourself, your colleagues, and your students.

Q: How do you embrace families as co-educators and help them feel safe and supported?

A: Families need many of the same supports as students. You can help them:

  • Feel safe
  • Feel and stay connected
  • Feel accepted and valued
  • Learn and practice self-regulation, including emotion management
  • Avoid re-traumatization if caregivers have experienced traumatic stress themselves
  • Receive targeted support for individual needs and for COVID-19-related issues

Most importantly, take the time to meet with families early in the school year and maintain a consistent routine for checking in. Listen to and address any concerns families might have about this year’s new learning context, create space for them to be heard, and recognize and acknowledge that everyone is doing the best they can.

Download our family handout to share these tips with them, too.

1 The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2020.) About Child Trauma.