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 | Mitchell Palmquist

Caring for Kids

Catholic School Teachers Strengthen Skills in Supporting Students through Trauma

The teachers in our Catholic schools have a desire to support their students, to walk with them in difficult times, and help them find success in and out of the classroom. Many larger schools may have counselors on staff, but Catholic schools usually do not have counselors. Our teachers step into that gap and will now be more prepared, thanks to a trauma-support course.

In the spring of 2019, the first cohort of diocesan teachers attended the new Understanding & Supporting Students through Trauma course, supported by the Nazareth Guild and lead by Dr. Addy Wissel. Many students in our Catholic schools carry with them the emotional weight of traumas large and small: from children who have unstable home lives, suffer food insecurity, have experienced the arrest of a parent, experienced bullying, the death of a close relative, or a host of many other things. The second cohort of teachers is taking the training now.

Dr. Addy Wissel, director of the school counseling program at Gonzaga University, spoke with the Inland Catholic about the course she is leading and the teachers who have taken the course so far. “I’ve been impressed by their desire to support the students,” Wissel said.

The course takes place over four weekends and is designed to support teachers in supporting students. Wissel spoke about the overwhelming need for social and emotional support that is needed in schools, especially because many schools are now seeing more complex trauma in their students. The teachers learn how trauma affects kids, how to support their students, and how to support families. In each training session, the teachers are challenged to grow by putting something they learned into action in their classrooms the following week. Teachers also learn how to handle burnout and compassion fatigue.

“Across the board, schools are seeing more students struggling with trauma,” Wissel said. She further suggested that in some cases, rather than labeling students as having behavioral issues, the schools are intervening to help the child address the trauma behind the behavior. This shift in understanding can be challenging for some in the community.  Dr. Wissel said while some wonder if trauma support is the best approach to behavioral issues, it’s helpful to think of this effort to the Church’s mission in education: to care for and educate the whole person. “I think it is important to validate the lived experiences of the students and this aligns with the mission of the Church—to be compassionate,” Wissel said. The effort of our schools to be educational institutions that witness the love of Christ to our students is aided by this educational initiative for teachers.

More to the point, Dr. Wissel stressed that it is hard for students to learn when they are suffering with trauma from events in their life. If they often don’t know where their next meal is, if they feel isolated, if they are suffering from any emotional or social trauma, these students will struggle to focus on their education.

Shannon Pearson, a teacher at St. Mary Catholic School in Spokane Valley, said she learned how to support her students better by saying to the Nazareth Guild, “Children in our schools today need support with regard to mental and emotional wellness.” She added, “I feel I can now better support my current and future students.”

For Pearson, the course helped her learn “about all the different types of trauma that can have adverse effects on children.” She also said that the course helped her learn “teaching strategies to build a thriving classroom community where all students feel safe and supported.”

As Nazareth Guild, the Gonzaga School Counseling Program, and the Catholic Schools of Eastern Washington discern their next steps in this ongoing educational initiative, it is clear that the teachers and staff of the Catholic schools hope to foster a sense of encounter with the love of Christ in the classroom. As students grow in knowledge and faith, our teachers are dedicated to providing them a safe and loving environment.