Helping Students Cope with the Traumas of War
The cause was not immediately clear. Panic filled her veins. Students and teachers rushed outside.
A bomb had gone off, claiming two children’s lives in another section of the school. In her Central Asian country, militant groups often attacked buildings of all kinds, from schools to hospitals to military compounds.
Zara’s family members also recall the dread that twisted their insides when they heard the blast across town. “We can never forget that,” her sister says.
The students were given one week off. When they returned, they were given time to discuss what happened. After that, students still grieved their lost classmates. Even those who didn’t know the victims personally were prone to tears.
Trauma can be particularly severe when a child has lost one or both parents to violence, explains a school director in the Middle East. A child may remember vivid details about their parent’s last moments – or the moment they heard about it. The death will also feel particularly unexplainable and unjust.
War-related trauma affects over one billion children worldwide whose countries have been torn apart by armed conflict, war, or terrorism, scholars say. Around 30 million children have been forcibly displaced, according to the UN High Commission on Refugees.
The traumas of war can never be erased, but teachers can be a vital source of healing and breakthrough. The first step is identifying children who are suffering.
Signs of war-related trauma are similar to all trauma victims. Psychiatrist Michelle Liu says these include irrational fears, depression, suicidal thoughts, impulsive behavior, and unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Syrian refugee children, for example, often displayed dependent behavior as an after-effect of the violence they endured. They often clung to parents frequently or harbored unusually strong fears about being left alone, according to a study by psychiatric scholar Alan Chrisman.
In some schools, many students may be traumatized. Think back to Zara’s school, where all the classmates heard and felt the blast. In these cases, screening all students one by one can pinpoint which students are struggling the most. Scholars note that these screens can inquire about suicidal thoughts, difficulty concentrating, the frequency of nightmares, or impulses such as overeating.
Healing by Storytelling
Children victimized by violent, drastic events often struggle with communication. Yet voicing their story is one of the most useful ways to process their emotions and perhaps take back some remnant of control they lost in the trauma.
Students who are given dedicated time to reflect on their experiences during the school day can often focus better on their studies, rather than being distracted by depressing thoughts or unpleasant memories.
Here’s a simple comparison: just as eating breakfast can help us focus on our daily tasks instead of our stomachs, processing trauma is similar. Once some necessary reflection is out of the way, the mind is clearer.
To facilitate this, teachers can take traumatized students aside and gently guide them to start telling their stories in a notebook. Consider focusing on just one detail per sitting to avoid overloading the child’s heart. If a child cannot write, the teacher can jot down details. Perhaps let the student add color to the page to give them some ownership.
Healing With Words
Activities like these are proven tools for the healing process, but a teacher can play an even deeper role.
A teacher can serve as an enduring champion. They can guide a child’s eyes toward the blessings in their life — helping them visualize a bigger story where their trauma is just one chapter.
A teacher can build up the child with encouragement, helping them know their worth and understand their strengths.
Never underestimate the power of healing words. A teacher’s voice can be used to mend a child’s heart and breathe new life into them.
*All names changed or anonymized to protect privacy.
About the Author
Lauren Craft loves writing. She enjoys sharing her joy with refugees from around the world, who have blessed her in return with heartfelt friendship and stories that inspire her heart. Her inspiring writing has appeared in more than 20 book compilations and magazines.