Expert Tips for Handling Stress and Trauma in the Classroom

A teacher stands in the middle of a chaotic classroom environment.

Over the course of the pandemic, all teachers and students have faced many challenges. Education systems have seen trials and challenges that change constantly, and leave teachers, students, administrators and community members feeling frustrated and burnt out.

Sarah Stork - a former teacher of 15 years - and her mom Nancy Lynch Gibson - a licensed professional counselor in the state of Maryland - joined Kris and Katie on the EdShift Podcast to discuss Trauma in the Classroom and offer some support and strategies teachers can use.

These stressors brought on by the pandemic have been persistent, constant, and continual and create a lot of uncertainty for the future. These challenges have had a unique impact on classroom teachers, who are on the front lines of managing and supporting students through the ups and downs while managing changing circumstances and expectations, and in many cases struggling to maintain their own sense of balance and mental wellness.

“Trauma isn't always a life-changing crisis” Nancy Lynch Gibson, MA, LCPC says. “Trauma is defined as anything that overloads our nervous systems to the point at which we can’t cope.” Sound familiar?

What happens to our bodies when we’re stressed?

Nancy explains what happens in us when we’re stressed as a full body and brain experience.

“It affects our brains and bodies, then it impacts our behaviors and emotions.”

When we’re stressed, the parts of our brains that control our ability to think rationally start to shut down. Our body begins to prepare us for a fight or flight response and if our body doesn’t want to do either of those things, our body starts to shut down. The limbic system, heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline, and other stress hormones will start ramping up. Our muscles begin to tense while the digestion system starts shutting down. This stress response is a holistic experience that can drastically affect our well-being.

When stress is prolonged, we stay in that tense position and our body begins to fatigue. We begin having digestion issues, sore muscles, headaches, and sleep issues.

Stress can show up in many ways for people, including:

  • Hypo-arousal. This looks like teachers and students that are numb - head down, quiet, emotionally shut down, and unable to effectively manage incoming circumstances that feel negative OR positive.
  • Hyper-arousal. In the classroom, this can look like students that are acting out, irritable, unable to sit still, and disruptive to not only their learning but often those around them too.


Managing Stress in the Classroom

In Episode 12 of the EdShift podcast, Nancy and Sarah offer three easy solutions to manage stress in the classroom. This practical advice helps to encourage teachers to “put on their own oxygen mask before helping others”:

1. In stressful situations, connect with your breath

  • When we feel stressed, our breath can often get very shallow. By taking long, deep breaths, our system has time to reboot and reset
  • Nancy suggests first grounding yourself in the room. Place your palms on the desk, feet on the floor, and yourself in a chair. Take three deep breaths (or more). You can try counting while breathing. Count to 4 while you inhale and 4 while you exhale, then increase to 5 and 6. You can try repeating a mantra such as “I am calm,” or “I am peaceful.”
  • The important piece is to create something that you feel comfortable with.

2. Look for opportunities to practice authentic self-care

  • Selfcare can often feel self-defeating. When you’re overly stressed, the last thing you want to do is add one more thing to your plate.
  • When practicing self-care, lower your expectations. You might not get it all done but it’s important to remember that's okay – that mindset is self-care in itself.
  • Self-care doesn’t have to be a day at the spa or a yoga routine. It can be as simple as taking a break or a breath. Self-care looks different for everyone so find a solution that works for you, today.

3. Take it one step at a time

  • Stress can often manifest itself into a cloud of worries. Stress can build up into many “what-ifs” and worst-case scenarios.
  • The best way to tackle a stressful scenario is to stop yourself from spiraling into further worries. By stepping back, staying in the moment, and simply breathing, our brains can begin to think rationally again. Focus on the moment and overcome the stressful situation before moving on to the next thought.
  • Take a moment of pause and then move forward. Give yourself permission to hit the reset button.

To learn more about how to tackle stress and trauma in the classroom, listen to the full episode here. Hear some simple, impactful ideas and strategies for supporting students - and colleagues, and yourself - during difficult times.