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COVID-19, Student Trauma, and Executive Function

Everyday, we are bombarded with  new information on and experiences with COVID-19. While we may be acutely aware of how the pandemic impacts us personally we may not know how the pandemic is impacting our children or students, or  how to prevent possible long-term negative effects. It’s logical to presume that many children are experiencing trauma and will continue to do so as they enter classrooms this fall.

Because of our experience and expertise, Reflection Sciences  can provide insight on  dealing with the current pandemic and its side effects, especially in detecting the trauma children may be facing, and how it will affect their ability to learn. 

Trauma and Executive Function

Trauma can initiate strong emotions and physical reactions that can persist long after events occur. It could also disrupt Executive Function (EF) skills which are foundations in key areas such as critical thinking, decision making, and executing tasks (Diamond, 2013). These functions drive how students interact, learn, and respond to what is happening in the world around them.

A disruption of EF due to trauma can manifest itself in school in several ways, including:

  • Struggles with regulating thoughts, feelings and emotions. The pandemic may leave students feeling buried under their negative thoughts and fear. 
  • Behavioral issues. Self-control enables us to resist impulsive responses, and behave appropriately in a given situation. Students exposed to trauma, especially in instances where EF were either not fully developed or are disrupted, might act out in ways that seem irrational.
  • Fatigue. Children are having pandemic dreams, too. In adults, these dreams are influenced by anxiety and loneliness. National Geographic wrote a very informative article on this topic, so check it out for more information. Beyond fatigue, a study (Simor et al., 2012) demonstrated impaired executive function in subjects with frequent nightmares.
  • Difficulty completing tasks. When executive functions are disrupted, students might struggle with self-narration (mentally telling ourselves what we need to get from Point A to point B), planning, problem-solving, and time management. If a student isn’t handing in their homework or completing their online lessons, this could be due to the trauma of the past several months.

Supporting Students Experiencing Trauma

There are ways that we can support children as they go back to school. An article from Teacher Magazine shares some great ideas about how teachers can help students during this transition. I’ve taken a combination of those suggestions as well as others so we can find ways to help students experiencing trauma and potential EF disruptions.

  • Establish routine, structure, and communication. Daily changes and unpredictability can further aggravate trauma responses. Predictable daily routines and boundaries bring a sense of comfort.
  • Build student confidence. Students have experienced and overcome unprecedented challenges throughout the pandemic. They have also taken on numerous responsibilities, both academically and in their personal lives. Use these experiences to build confidence in students’ self-direction capabilities. 
  • Plan for inclusion and reduce anxiety. Students have different resources at home, which means that whether they continue to learn remotely or choose to attend in-person classes. Progress might not look the same for everyone. Proper scaffolding and entry points are critical, along with acknowledging the difficulties they faced while in isolation.
  • Share and explore experiences. Allow students to share with you and with others how things were during remote learning, or what they experienced over the last months. A sense of togetherness and being heard might help students have an easier transition back to school after a traumatic time.
  • Remember that all feelings are valid. We must also be mindful that trauma responses are shaped by a whole host of things, including pre-pandemic circumstances and our own EF development over time. Regardless of what students experienced or how they respond to the pandemic, we must not discount their emotions.
  • Know when students, or you, need outside help. Some of the impacts of COVID-19 may require counseling and therapy. Review the different available resources, so you can guide students and parents in the right direction, but also so you know what is available for you.

Whether your school year begins in person or online, there are things we can do to support our students who have experienced trauma due to COVID-19. While there is no promise of policies or laws that will protect us and our students, individual and community actions will help lead to the healing that we all need at this time.

Wondering what your students’ current Executive Function skills look like? Learn about our FREE EFGO assessment to determine what their individual needs are.

EF and Trauma Badge

Learn more about Trauma and Children

Register for our course EF 302: The Role of Trauma on the Development of Executive Function.

About the Author:

author photoEmily McLane is an educator with a Master of Science in Teaching from Fordham University. She has taught in the K-12 sector in the United States, and the Higher Education sector in France, where she has lived since 2016. In addition to teaching, Emily is also a researcher for EdSolutions, an education-based strategy and innovation consulting firm focused on generating social impact through educational markets. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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