How access to books helps students process trauma

Many educators and stakeholders are now paying attention to the potential effects that recent traumatic experiences — such as a pandemic, political unrest and racial tensions — will have on students and learning. But trauma in children isn’t new.

We teachers have always been on the frontlines, responding to the effects of trauma on our students. We’ve seen a wide range of trauma, from children coming to school hungry to difficult family situations, and we know firsthand the impact that these scenarios have on learning.

Following the COVID-19 school closures, many school districts see the need to address social and emotional development in school settings in ways much bigger than in the past. This may appear in many different formats — but I encourage teachers to continue to rely on what they have known to work when it comes to meeting children where they are and helping them make sense of the world around them.

I’m advocating for books.

This may seem incredibly oversimplified, but it’s a good first step for those who are looking to help their students work through a lot of big issues and events.

My own journey

As a teacher of K – 6 English language learners in Rosemead, Calif., my students’ existing struggles were amplified 10-fold last year when our community was rocked by events extending beyond the pandemic, such as wildfires and racial unrest. We saw our community, families and friends shaken to the core.

Turning to books helped my students learn and process the events happening around them. A few of the ones I assigned included:

  • Wildfires by Andrea Rivera, which helped my students process what was happening in their own backyard. This was during the time of great wildfires in California, and this story helped explain how fires start, how they are contained and how to prevent them.
  • The Coronavirus: Staying Safe With Healthy Habits by Julie Murray helped my students get a better understanding of what to expect when they returned to school for hybrid learning. This story is about how viruses function, how to prevent them from spreading and what children need to do to stay safe from them.
  • Jackie Robinson: Baseball Legend by Grace Hansen helped introduce my students to the racial tensions in America. This is the story about the first black man to play professional baseball in America and all the struggles he had to overcome to pave the way for future generations of minority athletes in professional American sports.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil Rights Leader, also by Grace Hansen, helped my students explore the civil rights movement in America. This story is rich with information about the key moments of the civil rights movement, like boycotts (which we first learned about in the story of Rosa Parks) and peaceful protests to drive change.
  • Cesar Chavez: Latino American Civil Rights Activist, also by Grace Hansen, helped my students make connections to racial tensions of minority races in America. This story of migrant farm workers looking for change in their harsh working conditions and better pay, had a great impact on my students because they made the direct connection to boycotts and peaceful protests from earlier stories.
  • Holidays: Chinese New Year by Rebecca Pettiford helped us find some lighthearted moments in all these events.This story is about the origins of Chinese New Year and family traditions surrounding it. Most importantly it was the perfect opportunity for finding balance in our reading and for my students to be enlightened about a story that had immediate relevance to their world.

Customizing reading options

But, as we know, not every child experiences or processes a situation the same. It’d be naive of me to think I could turn to one book and all would be well. Instead, I worked to supplement our ongoing curriculum with high-quality books online, audiobooks and other resources from Epic, a digital library that’s always free for teachers and librarians. I enjoy using the on-demand, read-to-me feature to help foster my students’ reading literacy development. In Epic, I was able to make collections that my students could then choose based on their needs and interests.

The students and I then came together as a class to process what we had learned. We started discussing the stories in greater depth during concurrent learning by working on digital book reports using Google Slides. This allowed us to better understand the importance of the stories we had read, the main elements involved and the impact that those events had on society.

And beyond processing trauma, I saw real learning happening through the collective assigned reading, the customized reading options and the digital book reports..

Many of us educators got into this profession because kids come first — and academics follow. When we took on the role of “teacher,” we took on much more than “academic guide.” Being able to pair that responsibility with reading that enlightens my students, and engages them in learning,