How a Supportive School Environment Can Help Counter the Effects of Trauma

It is well documented that a child’s reaction to trauma can interfere with brain development, learning and behavior — all of which have the potential to impact a child’s academic success as well as the overall school environment.

By understanding trauma and how it can change the actual physiology of the brain, school personnel can help reduce the negative impact. Teachers can use specific strategies to help children as they learn, and all staff members can help create a more supportive school environment to counter the effects of trauma.

Odessa Upper Elementary in Odessa, Missouri, has worked to combat the complex cause and effect of trauma and the impact trauma has on executive function and learning. We’ve addressed the role our school plays in academic success and the importance teachers have in reversing the impact of trauma on students.

Our mission is to strive to change the way we teach and ultimately structure our school to meet the diverse needs of our student population.

COVID-19 Crisis

This mission has become a focal point in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact school closures have had on students and families. Trauma is present now more than ever before — trauma that comes from lack of stability, stress at home, lack of supervision and care, physical, mental and sexual abuse, and a general lack of resources needed to thrive.

For many students, school is a refuge and the place where some of their basic needs get met. Unfortunately, the pandemic has left these young people without a safe haven.

Multiple Post-It notes on a window with empowering phrases written by students
Notes from our Random Acts of Kindness Day.

Changing School Culture With health. moves. minds.®

One of the important initiatives that Odessa Upper Elementary participates in is SHAPE America’s health. moves. minds. program, which has brought about an awareness and change in our school that is amazing!

One of the key leaders in our program is Kristi Bieri, our physical education teacher. She has brought the integral pieces of health. moves. minds. to our staff, students and community. As a school community we have worked to incorporate this program as a school-wide effort. We practice service learning, mindfulness and wellness across the curriculum.

As a school we have changed the way we “teach.” We restructured our schedule to give teachers time to focus on building positive relationships with students. By making this part of our daily schedule, we send the message that this is valued as much as math, reading or science.

Thank you note written by 5th grade class.
A note left on my car from a fifth-grade class.

Empowering Students Through Service Learning

We also placed a big emphasis on service learning. Service learning is a proven way to allow children who have experienced trauma to become less “victimized.” The act of giving to others changes their thought process and shows them how they can be a part of a solution instead of being hopeless in dealing with problems.

Each class at Odessa Upper Elementary selected two service-learning projects — one inside our school and one beyond our school. These projects have made a tremendous impact on our school and our community. We have picked up trash, put positive notes on teachers’ windshields at every building, given treats to our bus drivers, collected food, blankets, and coats, and even started a clothes closet inside our building.

Outside of our school, we have decorated a local nursing home for the holidays, collected money for cancer research, provided food to our local animal shelter, and volunteered time at our community action agency.

It is inspiring and empowering to see students take charge and see the fruits of their hard work and kind heart.

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This “whole child” approach has proven to be successful and has improved our students’ success in and out of school. By addressing both the social-emotional needs of our students alongside academics, I have witnessed an amazing transformation in the culture of school, the academic success of our students, and an increase in participation of our families. As a school community, we will continue to raise awareness and work to combat the effects of trauma on our students and our school.

Additional Resources

Buffie McConville

Buffie McConville is principal of Odessa Upper Elementary School in Odessa, MO. She has more than 20 years of experience in the field of education and has worked as a social worker, counselor, assistant principal, and principal. She currently teaches adjunct classes at University of Central Missouri as well. She and her husband, Brent, have two children, Ellie and Ben.