What is Vicarious Trauma?

Sandra Burns
Sandra Burns
Elementary school principal; M.Ed. in Educational Leadership
Teacher holding her head while sitting at her desk in a classroom.

What is Vicarious Trauma?

As we prepare our classrooms for the fall and with so many uncertainties that we as educators are facing, we must not overlook our student’s needs or the needs of our staff and teachers. Vicarious trauma is a type of trauma that we may be facing more than ever as we prepare for the 2020-2021 school year. Unfortunately, as educators we are directly exposed to a large number of children, year after year, who have experienced some type of trauma. A secondary type of trauma is known as vicarious trauma and puts educators at an extreme risk. Vicarious trauma can result from “hearing people’s trauma stories and becoming witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured,” according to the American Counseling Association.

Every great educator gets to know their students and families on a personal, yet professional level. They put their heart and soul into their students’ education and this often involves wearing many hats. While wearing many hats, this also opens the door for students to be able to share stories with their teacher about their home situations as well as some of their experiences, both good and bad. Unfortunately, hearing different traumatic experiences that our students have lived through or witnessed makes educators all the more susceptible to this awful trauma.

How Vicarious Trauma can Impact the Classroom

Just as with any type of diagnosis, there is always that chance that the classroom can be impacted. If a teacher is suffering from vicarious trauma, they may be faced with trying to juggle their own negative thoughts due to trying to help assist a child who has encountered trauma firsthand. This at times may be evident as educators may require taking more time off from work and use up their sick days to focus on their own well-being. This ultimately impacts the students, as their teacher may be absent from the classroom often. As with any other type of mental illness or distress that one may deal with, the impact can be significant and affect several aspects of your daily life.

Strategies to Reduce and Manage Vicarious trauma

As educators have worked hard to get through their secondary education and earn their teaching certifications, dealing with vicarious trauma is not something that anyone has been taught throughout their college career. Instead, teachers are left feeling unsure and at times defeated when vicarious trauma symptoms haunt them and impact their teaching abilities. As educators, where do we go from here?

One of the greatest things about being an educator is that you are never dealing with an issue single handedly. School buildings all across the nation are packed with educators who want to make a difference and put their best foot forward in doing so. Sometimes, as educators, we work so hard to meet all of the academic, social, and emotional needs of our students that our own mental state and well-being takes a toll which may lead to vicarious trauma, sometimes called compassion fatigue.

One thing is for sure; educators who suffer from this are not alone. Leaning on colleagues during difficult times may be one of the best therapeutic practices, outside of meeting with an actual therapist, to help navigate through this secondary trauma. Colleagues often can offer the best advice and be a great resource. Seeking out colleagues to touch base with and sharing how you are feeling is extremely beneficial in helping anyone cope. Isolation at such a trying, difficult time may be one of the worst coping strategies. No one should ever try to get through this alone.

At the end of a long day, taking time for you is essential. Self-care is often pushed to the wayside with all of our busy schedules, but is something that is so important. As educators, we give our all every day and taking care of ourselves is often neglected. Going for a long car ride, reading a relaxing book, doing a hobby that you enjoy most, taking a walk with a friend, or even just splurging for take-out one night after a long day are ways to take time for yourself and try to deal with all of the emotions that you may be feeling. Our students deserve the very best, and taking care of yourself ensures that you will step into the classroom refreshed and ready for a new day.

We must not ignore that fact that our students are dealing with trauma as well. Despite our own obstacles, we can’t forget what our students are living through. Being proactive and incorporating copings strategies into not just our own schedule and routine, but also our students schedules will add to the nurturing environment of our classrooms. We must make sure that we are also addressing the underlying issues that our students are dealing with and get them the support and care they may need. This may involve reaching out to other stakeholders if the student needs are more than what a classroom teacher can provide. This will ultimately lead to an effective, trauma-informed classroom.

At the end of the day it comes down to knowing our students, addressing their needs, all the while taking care of ourselves. Being an educator is one of the most selfless occupations that there is, but we must be sure to find a balance and put our own health and well being as a top priority. Administrators also play a part in fostering a community that is supportive and also willing to explore professional development opportunities in areas such as mental health and self-care. They also must build their teachers up with staff appreciation initiatives, as this is an extremely challenging job. As administrators, we must take care of our teachers so that we are providing our students the very best education that we can.

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