What is Secondary Traumatic Stress and How Does it Affect Teachers?

Teacher consoles a distressed student sitting in a school hallway.

Childhood trauma is tragically common. More than two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event by age 16, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Such widespread trauma affects not only children but also those who interact with them. Teachers who work with and support children who have experienced trauma face a related risk: secondary traumatic stress.

While the dangers of secondary traumatic stress are well-known in fields such as health care and law enforcement, not all educators understand secondary traumatic stress’s causes and impact.

What Is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Secondary traumatic stress occurs when an individual is exposed to the details of someone else’s traumatic experience and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Such an exposure can cause the individual learning about the traumatic experience to suffer emotional duress similar to that of the person who experienced the trauma firsthand. Secondary traumatic stress is common among professionals such as therapists and first responders who regularly come into contact with traumatized people.

Teachers who work with students who have been traumatized or experienced traumatic events can also experience secondary traumatic stress. Teachers should be aware of the following factors that increase the risk of secondary traumatic stress:

  • Regular exposure. Teachers who repeatedly work with students who are coping with trauma and their reactions to stress.
  • Previous exposure to trauma. Teachers who have experienced trauma in their own lives.
  • Inexperience. Teachers who are relatively new to the profession and haven’t yet developed coping skills.
  • Lack of support. Teachers who work at institutions that lack supportive administration.
  • High levels of empathy. Teachers who are particularly sensitive to students’ feelings and experiences.

Generally, teachers who work with students who are at greater risk for traumatic stress are at higher risk for secondary traumatic stress. Looking at examples of some types of trauma that students commonly experience––and the conditions that make these traumatic experiences more likely––more fully illustrates the risks that students and teachers face.

Causes of Trauma

Traumatic experiences can occur in the home, in school, or in the wider community and be triggered by adverse events or conditions, such as the following:

  • Bullying
  • Community violence
  • A family member’s death or serious illness
  • Displacement from a home or country of origin
  • Exposure to violence or severe substance abuse
  • A parent or other family member with a serious mental or emotional disorder
  • Homelessness
  • Natural disasters, such as flooding and disease outbreaks
  • Physical or emotional neglect
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Poverty
  • Racism

Many events and conditions that can cause trauma in children disproportionately affect disadvantaged or marginalized communities and populations. For example, people who regularly face descrimination, violence, repression, and other forms of inhuman treatment due to their race or ethnicity suffer trauma from those injustices, and the effects can also impact teachers.

Questions About Secondary Traumatic Stress for Educators

Once educators become aware of secondary traumatic stress’s risks, they can learn to recognize the condition’s symptoms. The symptoms serve as warning signs that teachers may need to take steps to manage their secondary traumatic stress.

What Are the Symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Trauma and secondary traumatic stress have wide-ranging psychological, social, emotional, and physical effects. Teachers who are concerned that they or their co-workers may be experiencing secondary traumatic stress should be aware of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling numb or detached
  • Experiencing fatigue, lack of energy, lack of motivation, or low morale
  • Engaging in self-destructive behavior, such as alcohol or drug abuse
  • Feeling guilty
  • Performing poorly on the job
  • Struggling with concentration or making decisions
  • Experiencing trauma imagery
  • Withdrawing physically or emotionally from family, friends, and co-workers
  • Worrying about safety or feeling anxious

How Can Educators Manage Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Although no easy remedy for managing secondary traumatic stress exists, teachers who recognize symptoms in themselves or their co-workers can take steps to manage their stress. Secondary traumatic stress isn’t the same as normal stress associated with life and work challenges, but many tactics for addressing it are similar:

  • Getting enough sleep and exercise
  • Choosing a healthy diet
  • Practicing yoga or meditation
  • Taking time for stress-relieving hobbies
  • Getting away from work

Teachers can help one another with group check-ins and discussions that provide a platform for talking about the trauma that their students are experiencing and the effects that it has on them. Self-assessments and peer assessments are common ways of identifying a problem. Teachers may also need to seek counseling from professionals outside the workplace if they continue to struggle with secondary traumatic stress.

For many teachers, helping students is so inherent and their focus on students so constant that they can easily fail to recognize the toll that their work takes. For such educators, it may be helpful to remember that the benefits of learning to recognize and manage secondary traumatic stress’s effects contribute to more than just their own well-being. By taking care of themselves, they can more effectively care for their families, their co-workers, and their students.

Creating Trauma-Informed Learning Environments

Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program prepares educators to create effective and safe environments for teaching and learning. Mills College’s focus on collaboration, inclusiveness, teamwork, and information sharing creates leaders who promote and support those values in learning institutions at every level of education. To learn more, visit Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership.

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