The Educational Experience of Youth Who Have Lived Through Trauma: Learning From Students’ Stories

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Dods, Jennifer
Trauma , School Connectedness , Mental Health , High School , Caring Relationships
Experiencing a traumatic event during childhood or adolescence is not a rare event, yet there is little written that examines the impact that trauma and the resulting stress have in the school context, from the perspective of the youth. Traumatic stress manifests itself in internalizing and externalizing behaviours that can significantly impact academic and social functioning, and the psychosocial well-being of youth. In the absence of disclosure, teachers are often unaware that trauma may be at the root of emotional and behavioural needs seen in the classroom and may be the reason for more subtle shifts in behaviour, achievement, appearance, and demeanour. The protective nature of school connectedness, and specifically student-teacher relationships and caring, positive school climates, in increasing engagement and decreasing at-risk behaviours and emotional distress (Blum, 2005, Bond et al., 2007; Klem, & Connell, 2004) holds promise for these students. School and teachers can play an important role in improving well-being and in mitigating long term negative outcomes. Research in this area is essential as students with trauma histories and subsequent mental health needs are at greater risk for delinquency, substance abuse, suicide, chronic health problems, and diminished educational and employment success than their peers (Bardone, 1998; Edwards, Anda, Felitti, & Dube, 2004; Fergusson, 2007). This qualitative study describes the experience of four young adults who had each experienced varying traumatic life events during childhood and adolescence. The interviews sought to understand how trauma impacted the high school experience for the participants, perceptions of teacher support, and to hear their advice on how teachers can best support their learning and well-being. Results of the cross-case analysis showed the importance of noticing and validating subtle signs of student distress, of connections with caring teachers, and of teacher initiated offers of support. The youth also emphasized the importance of being seen and related to as a person and not solely as a student, highlighting the need for schools to focus on student well-being as well as academic functioning. These findings emphasize the importance that caring connections with teachers can have in supporting the well-being of students who have experienced trauma.
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