Helping Children Who Have Experienced Trauma Learn During a Pandemic

A blog post with tips for working with/teaching youth in a trauma-informed way.



The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbating domestic violence nationwide. At Safe+Sound Somerset, we are seeing an increase in the severity and frequency of violence that our clients are experiencing. During the period of March through June, compared to 2019, we had a 35% increase in calls to our hotline, and a 50% increase in requests for crisis response services. With school closures and social distancing, children are also more frequently exposed to the domestic violence taking place during the pandemic. There is also evidence that other Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) (links to ACES article) are being amplified by the pandemic as well.

See Also: Domestic Violence from a Childhood Perspective

If you are an educator, or an adult overseeing a child’s learning, it can be hard to identify which kids are being impacted by trauma. Instead, work under the assumption that most kids have experienced some form of trauma, and then create an environment that is a safe space for learning. This is especially important during the pandemic, a collective trauma, that may cause widespread trauma symptoms in children.

See Also: Collective Trauma of COVID-19

Here’s why it is so difficult for students to learn right now.

The brains of children who are experiencing trauma are focused on protection and survival, making it hard for them to be present for learning. Because their brains are in a constant “fight or flight” mode, these children may appear withdrawn, anxious, restless, tired, helpless, or aggressive in a school setting. They are also more likely to have pervasive negative and hopeless thoughts about themselves, their abilities, and the adults around them – causing frustration and a lack of motivation for school and other activities.

All of these reactions are the body’s way of preparing to respond to a threat or danger, or the result of exhaustion that comes from constantly being “at the ready” and feeling unsafe. These symptoms make it hard enough for children to learn in typical school settings. Virtual learning, in the very environment that may represent danger to the child witnessing domestic violence, may be next to impossible.

Here are some easy, trauma-informed steps you can take to create a safe environment to make learning easier for children experiencing trauma.

  • If someone is acting out, find ways to ask if everything is alright instead or if something happened, instead of “what’s wrong with you?” Lashing out and/or distractibility might be a sign of trauma or stress, not disinterest. Children may not be able to answer right away, so diffuse the situation and then follow up when they are calmer.
  • Create an environment of trust, transparency and reliability. This helps to both prevent and calm a trauma response. Create a schedule so the students know what to expect. If you’re a teacher conducting online instruction, copy and paste this schedule into the chat box throughout the day. Provide warnings for when activities will change and make instructions and expectations clear. Avoid making promises you can’t keep and be honest when changes need to be made. Always be clear about your limits of confidentiality.
  • Work in ways to build self-esteem and begin to break down children’s hopeless or negative thoughts. Find ways to tell someone that they are valuable by focusing on non-academic successes or positive characteristics. Model more positive thinking. If you hear someone say, “I’m stupid, I’ll never get this,” suggest, “Perhaps your tired and could use a break?” “Would it be helpful to take some breaths?” or, “You may not be going as fast as you’d like, but you’re getting better.”
  • Provide frequent breaks. Even very short breaks can be helpful if someone is stuck in a trauma stress response. Include breaks that create movement and excitement (e.g., clapping games, dance breaks, or jumping jacks) and others that help calm and focus students (e.g., deep breathing or meditation). For some quick mindfulness activities for children, see Practicing Mindfulness During COVID-19. Allowing students to turn off their cameras for a few minutes can also relieve pressure.
  • Find ways to provide as much choice as is reasonable. For instance, if there are 2 lessons or homework activities in one day, allow your students or children to pick the order of completion.
  • Have classroom – virtual, hybrid or in-person – expectations be a group discussion. Guide students to identify behaviors that are acceptable and appropriate, versus unacceptable or harmful to themselves or others.
  • Be mindful of your own trauma history. Just as children each bring their own experiences with ACEs to their learning, so too do adults. By taking care of yourself, identifying your own triggers, and developing your own coping methods, it will be easier to create the thoughtful, supportive, and safe environment that youth need to learn.

Although it may be tempting to try to retain as much “normalcy” as possible, the reality is that these are scary times for everyone. For children in homes with violence it can be particularly scary. Use these steps to help maintain a safe, calming, and predicable environment for all of the young learners you interact with!

If you or someone you know is in need of help or you have questions about domestic violence and its impact on families, call or text us 24/7 at 866.685.1122. Additional information can be found online at