Each year more than 10 million children in the United States endure secondary traumatic stress (STS) associated with abuse, violence, natural disasters, and other adverse events.
Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.
As pointed out in Harvard University’s Usable Knowledge, STS is now well understood in many helping professions, but there is a little research, understanding or acknowledgement of how it affects educators.
Below, Betsy McAlister Groves, a clinical social worker and former faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, tells Usable Knowledge how schools can understand and mitigate STS for teachers and principals.
Build a culture of awareness
The very acknowledgement by school leaders that teachers might be experiencing STS is a step in the right direction. Too often, teachers feel that they are working alone. For teachers experiencing STS, this can be particularly dangerous, as it can easily exacerbate feelings of being overwhelmed, isolated, and hopeless.
School leadership should consider ways to appreciate staff both publicly and privately –not just by recognising great work, but also by acknowledging that the work is difficult. Schools should connect school staff who might be experiencing STS with resources and make clear that symptoms are not a sign of weakness, but an indicator that they might need support because they work in an challenging profession.
Create peer groups
We know that ensuring that teachers have dedicated time to work together — to build curriculum, share lesson ideas, and strategize about how best to support individual students – often results in improved academic success of students. Peer groups can be equally effective when trying to address the mental health of educators.
Peer support groups are an effective strategy to combat STS in other helping professions. Schools should replicate this practice, creating a regular space (maybe once a month, or even once a week) where teachers can come together to check in with each other about how they are doing emotionally. If possible, these meetings should be supported by a mental health professional, and teachers should get to share their experiences, learn strategies for understanding their stress responses, and gain skills to cope with STS.
School leaders should take a school-wide approach. There is a growing movement around creating trauma-informed schools – schools that recognize and are prepared to support community members affected by trauma and traumatic stress. Such schools deeply integrate social-emotional learning into their teaching, culture, and approach, understanding that the holistic health and wellbeing of their charges is essential for achieving academic success. To do this, trauma-informed schools focus on fostering a supportive caring culture, training their entire staff to recognize and support students suffering trauma. While centered on supporting the emotional care and wellbeing of students, trauma-informed schools, by their nature, foster communities where educators have the understanding and tools to recognize and address STS in themselves and each other.