Trauma-Sensitive Student Support During School Closures: Practical Strategies for Helping Caregivers Help Kids

After watching Jen Alexander’s webinar with Brookes Publishing that has the same title as this article, read this post to explore eleven activities applicable for youth and their caregivers to help everyone express their feelings and meet their needs during this anxious time.

Hold Them Close by Dr. Debbie Donsky

The COVID-19 pandemic is understandably causing worry and fear for youth, families, and educators. Each person’s feelings are different; our needs are too. Some crave structure; others prefer freedom to be and feel, rest, connect, play, create, read, or learn in self-directed ways. Caregivers may want to hold children close. Some kids may want that too; other young people are desperate for freedom and time with their friends. The purpose of this post is to encourage everyone to trust themselves in both what they feel and what they need as individuals, families, and people in community (even if it’s from a physical distance) during a time when so much is unknown.

With school closings announced, I created some (and am suggesting other) trauma-sensitive social and emotional learning (SEL) activities that you are welcome to use as part of home (or elsewhere)-based support for all kids. If you want to think of these as a curriculum centered around better understanding the feelings and needs of self as well as others, that works. I think of them as things I made to help students (and grown-ups) with their big feelings. 🙂

If school personnel decide to provide these activities to all families, I suggest downloading, copying, and giving or sending the pages (as they are) so that everyone has equitable access. Not everybody will be able to download or print from where they are. Once caregivers have the activities (along with needed materials and a possible directions document from you), let them choose what, if anything, to try. Remember that my goal, which I hope will become your goal, is to encourage families to trust their feelings and needs even if they don’t match those of someone else. If something here is helpful, great. If not, that’s fine too.

In total, there are eleven activities designed for youth of diverse ages, including sibling groups. They are not intended to be completed all in the same day, nor does anyone have to do all of them. The order is intentional, but caregivers could decide to do one or two activities one day, another activity a few days or even a week later, skip some altogether, or repeat any if that seems helpful. No matter what is decided, encourage folks to focus on this a little bit at a time – then, don’t for a while. Think of it as everyone taking a bite out of processing their emotions, followed by taking time for *digestion* (aka, integration) through play, reading, other learning, or rest. (Hint: That’s one of the reasons why play dough is on the list of optional materials.)

In addition to 1) a possible directions document that you would make and 2) the downloads, which are below, students will also need access to 3) a few other materials (depending on the activities chosen). Schools are encouraged to provide these things along with any desired optional items. Consider volunteers or staff in your community who might be able and wanting to help by obtaining, individually packaging, and dropping off these supplies to your site (by themselves of course). Having student bundles of all the things available at food pick-up locations would be ideal. They could also be sent through the mail or electronically (for those who do have online access and can print). Throw in a postcard (and an online info-graphic) for crisis numbers or local referral information while you’re at it because while our public health focus now is on physical health, mental health suffering (in addition to risks for domestic violence) are of serious concern during this pandemic too.

Materials needed for each student:

  • Directions document (not included)
  • Handouts (see below)
  • Play dough (optional)
  • Pencils
  • Crayons (or markers)
  • Colored pencils & sharpener because dull colored pencils are the worst (optional)
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Blank journal (optional)
  • Jump rope (optional)


A directions document for caregivers may need to be prepared for families, depending on your intentions.

Interestingly, these ideas took shape after a few late night and early morning tweets so I will include those here as part of the explanation. Here we go! 🙂

Educator Preparation: Think Simple, Flexible, & Equitable Options

This crisis isn’t something most were expecting. It can be hard to know where to begin.

Educators (and helpers), this link from Prevent Child Abuse America has many other terrific resources about this pandemic to help you help others if you are interested in learning more.

Caregiver Preparation: A Little Bit of Reading

No matter who you are or what your role is, the following is an important place to start when thinking about how to care for and support children and adolescents during this stressful time.

This link about how to support youth during this crisis is from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and it’s very good. Check it out for general suggestions.

Whether you are a caregiver or an educator, please also read this article by Tina Payne Bryson (2020) to learn specific communication tips in relation to this virus that will help you foster emotional safety while facilitating the activities below. Approaching conversations as suggested will encourage kids to share honestly because they will experience being listened to and supported.

Here are several slides from the webinar that explain the feelings and needs we can predict for children and adolescents.

Student Activity #1: Video or Comic for Youth

SEL Competencies: Self Awareness, Social Awareness, Responsible Decision-Making

To start, consider showing a developmentally appropriate video to children explaining the virus such as this one. Or, use this comic about COVID-19 instead. Before starting, say something like, “Tell me what you already know about this virus.” Afterwards, ask, “What new things did you learn?”

“My red line is going down because I’m sick and sad. I wish I could feel better.” – Child

Student Activity #2: Draw-a-Line

SEL Competencies: Self-Awareness, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills

Whether it’s right after the video or at a different time, invite everyone (adults included) to draw their own line to show how they feel on one of the cutout rectangles from the page linked above. There’s literally no wrong way to do this. Be you; be creative!

This line shows how feelings (and thoughts) have changed over time.

After drawing, invite everyone to share as much or as little about their line as they want to. Encourage each person to listen without interrupting and to understand that someone else might have drawn a similar feeling in a very different way, which is okay.

Student Activity #3: Worry Box

SEL Competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills

COVID-19 and all the fear that goes with it have created worries for us all. Round up some empty boxes and invite your people to each make a worry box. Or, work together to make one that you will all share. It can be decorated in any way. Then, on paper of any size or kind, kids and adults can write or draw about worries and put them in the box where they can, well, be worried about. While this won’t erase all worries, sometimes having a place to put them that is outside of ourselves can give us a break from carrying and focusing on them. Another idea is to pull out one worry later (then another at a different time). Discuss how to help one another with each one. Or, simply notice if it’s still a worry. If it is, put it back in the box for safe keeping. If it’s not, get rid of it. #WrWeBox #BeStillMyHeart

Student Activity #4: I feel… I need… Discussion

SEL Competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills

Next time you connect on this topic, consider using the I feel… I need… format described below as one of my applications of Dr. Daniel Siegel’s Name It To Tame It strategy. Let each person share what they feel using emotional vocabulary words (e.g., happy, excited, sad, upset, mad, irritated, scared, worried, sorry, guilty, or proud, etc.). Also, ask them to say what they need. Consider what would help things to stay the same (if feelings are comfortable), make things better (by focusing on what’s within your control), or at least, what might be soothing (if feelings are uncomfortable).

Student Activity #5: I feel… I need… Project

SEL Competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, Responsible Decision-Making

“I need us to be healthy and help others because that feels good.” – A teen
“I feel worried about having enough money and the elderly who may be sick, but I like to see doctors and nurses helping.” – A teen

If you prefer a writing prompt, use the download above to encourage each person to journal about their feelings and needs. If your humans prefer a blank journal (book), that works too. (Hint: That’s why a blank journal is an optional item on the materials list.) Or, invite youth to make a collage by cutting out pictures and words from magazines along with drawing or writing about feelings on one page, then needs on another. Each person can share if they want to. End by discussing how you can work together to help each person get at least a little bit of what they need.

Student Activity #6: Make a List of Questions

SEL Competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness

Want to explore the layers of feelings and needs even more? Here’s one of my favorite techniques to help youth when big changes are happening.

I want to go deeper with #3, what about you?

Next, talk together about how to best meet those needs, while recognizing that not every wish can be granted. Not every “I don’t know” can be solved either. That’s because not every stressor can be changed. What we can do is comfort one another and ourselves by doing things that help us feel better. Be sure to consider what helps everyone (as in the family or group), not just individuals. I often say, “What’s best for us may be different from what you or I want right now.”

Student Activity #7: What’s Staying the Same for Us? Discussion

We can use I feel… I need… to help us focus on positives too.

SEL Competencies: Social Awareness, Relationship Skills

This list puts it all in perspective doesn’t it? Oh I wish every child and person could experience security in each of these things.

Student Activity #8: Mandalas, Movement, & Music

SEL Competency: Self-Management

Mandalas, movement, and music are your friends right now!

This little one showed courage too because when talking about what went well on this day, he shared with his family that he told the truth about sneaking on the tablet when he wasn’t supposed to. That was a strong choice, buddy! It’s hard to tell the truth sometimes.

With very special thanks to Dr. Debbie Donsky and her beautiful art, there are new mandala-like pages for you to color that are linked above. Coloring and other creative activities can soothe the stress response, which helps us get regulated so that we feel better inside. Don’t forget to thank Dr. Debbie Donsky for these beautiful gifts. You can find her and her brilliance on Twitter @DebbieDonsky or on Instagram @debdonsky. Not only is she a creator, but she is also an educator, leader, writer, and mommy who is passionate about equity. She would especially love it if you tag her in photos of these mandalas after they’ve been colored by you and yours! 🙂 #BetterTogether

Movement and music are important for health and regulation too. Being cooped up at home for even a day can leave everyone feeling dysregulated and needing help to get along. This is bound to be even more problematic when we’re home for a long period as part of physical distancing or a quarantine. Don’t forget that there are safe ways to move it, move it and play outside! We all need access to nature and fresh air along with space and exercise. (Hint: That’s why a jump rope is on the materials list as an optional item). Incorporate movement in the quantity of *gobs* during your time at home. Maybe try yoga. Also, don’t forget the benefits of a dance party and music in all the ways! These activities and more are fun as well as good for us. Importantly, they can help prevent some grumpy feelings and fights too. In fact, if the music is loud enough, folks won’t be able to hear or feel irritated by the sound of the voices of their next of kin, which might save a moment here or there. #JustSayin

Student Activity #9: I-Message *Connect Four* Game

SEL Competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, Responsible Decision-Making

Even with all of the best things in place, conflicts are going to happen, especially when we live with other people. Here’s a game to help kids practice the I feel… I need… communication strategy as part of healthy conflict resolution. Think helping kids practice using their words to assertively express how they feel and what they need when a problem happens instead of hitting, yelling, pouting, or giving up, etc.

If kids need help thinking about what they need, encourage them to focus on what they hope the other person will start doing now or in the future, not just what they want them to stop doing (e.g., “I feel upset; I need a turn too.”). Or, they can think about how the other person could make up for the action that caused harm (e.g., “I feel hurt; I need an apology for how you treated me.”). Simply owning and saying what is needed so that things don’t keep escalating can be a helpful alternative as well (e.g., “I feel big energy in my body; I need a break. Let’s talk about this later.”). Download the *Connect Four* Game page and directions linked above. Then, play together.

Student Activity #10: Conflict Resolution Plan

Is there anything better than kids’ honesty? This tween’s mom told me that in one part of their conversation, this compassionate soul was worrying about strangers who might be struggling with shortness of breath because that sounds “scary.” Soon after, the concern was toothpaste in the sink. You speak truth on both accounts, kid. I feel you.

SEL Competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, Responsible Decision-Making

No matter how much teaching and practice are in place, conflicts are going to escalate into unhelpful behaviors sometimes. When that happens, help separate the people with big feelings for a bit so that everybody can be safe and feel safe. Later, and once better regulated, ask those who were directly involved in the conflict to work together to talk out and even write down a plan for moving forward. I created the plan linked above to help you help kiddos resolve conflicts in ways that honor each person’s feelings and needs. Give it a try!

Student Activity #11: What Went Well Today?

End one or more days with a chat about What Went Well today. Encourage each person who shares to list something specific they did to help that part of the day go well (e.g., I waited my turn to get ready in the bathroom without grumbling or griping and that helped our morning be more fun). On the toughest days, if the only thing you did well was breathe, that’s enough so own it. Once in a while, you could ask each person to write about What Went Well today by using the page linked above, which is one of the appendices from my book, Building Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Your Guide to Creating Safe, Supporting Learning Environments for All Students. I wrote the book to help educators help all youth and adults in our school communities cope with stress, especially stress that is too much, so that we can live, learn, and grow. There are many things we already do well to support one another. We need to notice ’em and celebrate together!

Before signing off, I want to share a very special thank you to the grown-ups and young people who tried out these activities this week. All photos used here and in the webinar came from individuals who gave the materials a try when home-bound and experiencing the real stress of this crisis. They chose to send me photos along with permission to share parts of their stories in hopes of helping others. I’m humbled and honored to be part of their feeling and healing, and I feel the same way about being on this journey with you. As is often the case, I’m being reminded (again) that many children and teens know exactly what they need; we, as adults, simply need to listen and get out of the way.

I’d also like to share my own words about feelings and needs before closing. Exactly one month ago today, I resigned from my school counseling position for next school year – after fifteen years in the same amazing place. I feel excited because I have several new opportunities on the horizon that are all about helping you help kids. I also feel sad – really, really sad – because I will be saying goodbye to my school family whom I love. Today, it dawned on me that it’s possible we won’t go back to school at all before the end of the year. My heart broke. I feel hurt that I might not have an opportunity for connecting, giggling with Melvin our puppet friend, truth telling about what’s to come, and feeling all the feels with my students, families, and colleagues. I need to see them so I can tell them how much they mean to me, and I need to be able to say goodbye…. Loss… It’s going to be (and already is) part of this, folks – in more ways than we might be able to imagine right now. How will we get through it? By feeling the feels and honoring our needs – making sure no one is left out or treated poorly in the process. That’s it; that’s how we do it. Together. (Even if that togetherness goes on and on like this for longer than we’d like.)

Remember, we’re all doing our very best right now. Be gentle with yourself and others. Thankfully, we have social media to keep us keeping on with the world that’s beyond our own walls as we live this part of history. No matter where you are or how you’re doing, realize there is power in naming things. I’ll be here, looking forward to connecting with you on the other side of these #DystopianSnowDays (thank you for the hashtag @LadyOfSardines).

Virtual hugs – Ms. Jen

Link to watch the recording of the webinar is here.
Please note that the audio speed in the recording is faster than it was in the live recording; our apologies for that.

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