Trauma-Sensitive Student Support

Trauma-Sensitive Student Support
Hold Them Close by Dr. Debbie Donsky

After watching my webinar with Brookes Publishing that shares this title, read this post to explore eleven activities designed for youth and their caregivers. Use them to provide trauma-sensitive student support during school closures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing worry and fear for youth, families, and educators. Each person’s reactions are different; their needs are too. Some crave structure; others prefer freedom to be and feel, play, and learn in self-directed ways. While caregivers may want to hold children close, some kids may be desperate for freedom and time with friends. The purpose of this post is to encourage everyone to trust themselves in both what they feel and what they need during a time when much is unknown as part of trauma-sensitive student support.

Anyone is welcome to use the trauma-sensitive social and emotional learning (SEL) activities for all kids that I have created or rounded up in this post. If you want to, think of these as ways to help kids understand their own and others’ feelings and needs. I think of them as activities I curated to help students (and adults) with their big feelings


If you’re an educator who will provide the activities to families, realize that not everyone will be able to download or print from where they are. As a result, I suggest downloading, copying, and giving or sending the pages (as they are) so that everyone has equitable access. Then, encourage families to choose what, if anything, to try.

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. Importantly, encourage folks to focus on this a little bit at a time–then, don’t for a while. It’s best to “take a bite of” one’s emotions, followed by taking time for *digestion* (aka, integration) through creative work, reading, or rest. These activities are also a key part of trauma-sensitive student support. (Hint: That’s one of the reasons play dough is on the materials list.)

Educator To Dos

In addition to a possible directions document that you would make and the downloads, which are linked below, students will also need access to other materials, which are listed next. Please provide these items for families and consider including a card with crisis numbers or local referral information while you’re at it. While the public health focus right now is on physical safety and health, economic hardship and mental health suffering (in addition to risks for increased substance, abuse, domestic violence, or child abuse) are cause for concern during the pandemic too and must be considered as part of trauma-sensitive student support.

Materials 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)

Resources for Grown-Ups About Trauma-Sensitive Student Support

This crisis isn’t something most were expecting. It can be hard to know where to begin as you prepare to offer trauma-sensitive student support.

First, educators (and other helpers), this link from Prevent Child Abuse America includes many resources if you are interested in learning more about how to best offer support during the pandemic.

Next, this page about how to support youth during this crisis from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network is excellent. Check it out for general suggestions.

Finally, whether you’re a caregiver or an educator, please also consider reading this article by Tina Payne Bryson (2020). She explained specific communication tips in relation to the virus that will help you foster emotional safety. Her tips are great for use by adults while youth complete the activities.

Curious about what feelings and needs kids might share? Here are several slides from my webinar that explain the right now feelings and needs adults can predict for many children and adolescents. It’s important to be aware of these possibilities as you prepare to provide trauma-sensitive student support.

Student Activity #1: Video or Comic

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?”

Student Activity #2: Draw-A-Line

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

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

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 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. – A Teen

After drawing, invite everyone to share as much or as little about their line as they want to. Be sure to help kids understand that someone else might have drawn a similar feeling in a very different way, which is, of course, 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 many worries. Round up some empty boxes and invite your people to each make a worry box. Or, work together to make one that you’ll share. Then, on paper of any size or kind, kids and adults can write or draw about worries and place them in the box where they can be worried about. While this won’t erase all worries, sometimes having a place to put them outside of yourself is helpful. 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

As part of trauma-sensitive student support, consider encouraging everyone (adults included) to share what they feel and need by saying, “I feel…” and “I need…” Adults can repeat back what others communicate by saying “You feel…” and “You need…” If youth aren’t sure what they need, consider asking what would help things to stay the same (if feelings are comfortable), make things better (by focusing on what’s within one’s 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

If you prefer a writing prompt, use the download above to encourage folks to journal about their feelings and needs. Or, a blank journal (book) works too. (Hint: That’s why a blank journal is an optional item on the materials list.) Also, you could invite youth to make a collage by cutting out pictures and words 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.

“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
“I need us to be healthy and help others because that feels good.” – A teen

Student Activity #6: 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.

Say, “Let’s make a list of your questions.”

It’s less about brainstorming lots of questions, and more about getting to the feelings and needs under each one.

Ask, “How would an answer to that help you?” Then, listen. And, respond with words like, “I think I understand, it’s about needing… because you feel…”

Which question would you want to go deeper with here?

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. And, not every stressor can be changed. What everyone can do is comfort one another and themselves by doing things that help you 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 one person wants right now.”

Student Activity #7: “What’s Staying the Same?” Discussion

SEL Competencies: Social Awareness, Relationship Skills

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

When we feel… worried, it’s possible that we need… to know what’s staying the same. This too is a critical considering during trauma-sensitive student support.

So… Make a list of all the things that aren’t changing right now.

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 stress responses, which helps everyone get regulated.

Please 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!  

Movement and music are important for health and regulation too. Don’t forget that there are safe ways to move and play outside even while social distancing! Everyone needs access to nature and fresh air along with space and exercise. Incorporate movement in the quantity of *gobs* during your time at home. (Hint: That’s why a jump rope is on the materials list as an optional item). 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 everybody. Importantly, they can help prevent grumpy feelings and some conflicts too.

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 *Connect Four* 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.”). 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*directions and Game page linked above. Then, play together.

Student Activity #10: Conflict Resolution Plan

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

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.”

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 everyone can be safe and feel safe. Later, and once better regulated, ask those who were directly involved to talk out and even write down a plan for moving forward. I created the plan template 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). Once in a while, 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. Since there are many things you already do well to support your people, be sure to notice them and celebrate together!

A Special Trauma-Sensitive Student Support Thank You

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 each gave permission to share parts of their stories in hopes of helping others. In response, I’m humbled and honored to be part of their feeling and dealing. Furthermore, I feel the same way about being on this journey with you. As is often the case, I’m reminded (again) that many children and adolescents know exactly what they need. We, as adults, simply need to listen and get out of the way.

A Few Words About Loss

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 we might not go back to the building at all before the end of the year. My heart broke. I feel hurt that we might not have an opportunity for connecting, giggling with Melvin our puppet friend, or truth telling about what’s to come. I need to see them so I can tell them how much they mean to me. And, I need to say goodbye.

Loss… It’s going to be (and already is) part of this, folks–in more ways than anyone might be able to imagine right now. How will we get through it? By feeling the feels and honoring our needs–all while making sure that 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 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 help keep us connected. 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 coming up with the hashtag @LadyOfSardines).

Virtual hugs,

Ms Jen welcome message

#BuildingTraumaSensitiveSchools #COVID-19 #HelpingYouHelpKids

Link to watch the recording of the webinar is here.