Help students & staff recover from trauma

Traumatic events and unresolved stress can get in the way of our learning, our physical health and our ability to reach our goals. Staff and students often confront such events both in the classroom and out of it. And events in our community affect us all.    

How we respond to such events can have a major effect not only for individuals but for the collective culture and climate of our communities. Avoiding issues can lead to unresolved tension. But learning to recognize, reflect on and find meaning in the challenges we face can build emotional intelligence and resilience. This activity and guide supports that process, and can be used with students in the classroom or with staff in professional development.

Trauma Relief Activity – Guide (pdf)
Trauma Relief Activity (pdf)

University of Texas Psychology Professor James Pennebaker, Ph.D. first developed this writing activity which has shown positive effects for mental and physical health in multiple control group studies. To get the most out of it, we recommend the following guidelines for those leading the activity.

  1. Recognize diversity. Don’t assume what people are feeling. People interpret and respond to traumatic events differently based on how they are situated to it and how they see the world. That’s why this activity intentionally allows people to choose the traumatic experience they want to write about.
  2. Give a few weeks to heal.  Sleep may be the best first aid. Some people may not be ready to deal with an incident right after it has occurred. In fact, one popular method used after 9/11 to immediately engage trauma survivors in intensive dialogue, called Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD), may have a negative impact on recovery. After an exhaustive review of studies on CISD, Harvard psychologist Richard McNally and his colleagues recommended that “for scientific and ethical reasons, professionals should cease compulsory debriefing of trauma exposed people.” Instead, the writing activity in this guide has achieved positive outcomes by suggesting people wait a few weeks and then letting them decide what they are ready to write about.
  3. Create a safe space for reflection. Allowing people to do this on their own may be ideal for some, but others will be more likely to do it if you make time available. Also keep in mind that classroom and PD activities often require people to share what they’ve written, but the success of this activity depends on people having a quiet space to hear their own thoughts and know that they can be completely open about what they write without worrying others will read it. If you do have group discussion after the activity, ensure that it is voluntary and consider focusing on neutral topics such as, “how was this helpful to you?” or “how did you come to see your experience differently after writing about it?”

Finally, recognize that this activity is just one part of a balanced diet for the mind that should also address issues such as growing healthy habits, managing stress, improving sleep and nurturing relationships. Invest time in building holistic social emotional strengths and you’ll equip students and staff to thrive through the ups and downs of life. Our nonprofit EduGuide partners with schools, colleges and groups to do just that; please let us know how we can help you.


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