Stress & Trauma: Real Impact of COVID-19 on Students

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For many people when they hear the word, “trauma”, they immediately think about a death, accident, or near catastrophe. These more common associations that we have with trauma tend to come from a sudden or acute stress that is easily identifiable. However, there are other stressors that are more subtle, and impact us over time, causing chronic stress which can go overlooked. 

Physiological Effects of Stress

Research in the field of neuroendocrinology shows that abnormal circumstances or events can cause stress. Our bodies regulate stress using a system called the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, and HPA describes the way that chemical signals navigate through our body during times that are stressful. Activation in our hypothalamus sets off a chain reaction starting with a signal that it sends to receptors in pituitary glands; the pituitary glands send out a hormone to stimulate our adrenal glands; and finally our adrenal glands trigger the production of the actual stress hormone called glucocorticoids. 

As glucose levels rise, increased blood flow throughout the body carries with it inflammatory proteins. If stress is experienced over an extended period of time it becomes chronic, and chronic stress can become highly destructive to our biological systems. 

Impact on Young Children

Overloading the HPA axis, especially early in life, can produce negative and potentially damaging effects. Chemical reactions caused by stress can adversely impact physical, psychological, and neurological development — particularly in children. 

Bruce McEwen, former neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University, was well known for his research, “allostasis”. According to McEwen, allostasis is a process that causes wear and tear on the body when under a prolonged or constant state of stress. Prolonged stress can alter parts of the brain, which results in changes in how a person processes information. These changes to the brain and how it processes information can lead to changes that are both emotional and cognitive. Studies have shown that these changes over time can lead to problems concentrating, sitting still, and make it harder for children to recover from disappointing experiences. 

Shelter in Place

COVID-19 created an unprecedented response, not only domestically but internationally as well. Response included curfews, quarantines, and shelter in place orders that have impacted nearly every facet of society. 

In the United States school districts across the county closed their doors and transitioned to distance learning platforms. For weeks many children have remained indoors, or at very least separated from their normal lives. 

Society was introduced to the term, “social distancing”, which has impacted interpersonal relationships with family, friends, and with teachers. 

For many children our schools are their safe place; a place that they feel the most safe and secure. A place where they go during the day to escape neglect, and in some cases even abuse, and because of COVID-19 the places that they feel the most safe have been closed and unavailable to them. 

What about love and belonging? Many of our students look for love and belonging within their peer groups, and through connections that make with their teachers and other school staff members. 

Then there of course is the academic impact. We continue to face challenges of inequity and poverty which our school systems struggle with everyday. While many children do have access to a computer and internet to support distance learning efforts, the reality is that millions of children do not. Furthermore, distance and at-home learning does require, at least to some extent, parent support. Across the country we have millions of children that are in homes in which parents are either unable to provide the support that is needed, and in some cases even those that are unwilling. 

The Trauma is Real

At some point we will hit the reset button. We will open our doors, walk the streets, return to retail establishments, and students will head back to school. 

As leaders in education we need to acknowledge that for millions of our students, COVID-19 has been a traumatic experience. It has robbed students, in some way, shape, or form, of their normal day-to-day lives. It pulled them from their schools, away from their teachers and friends, and has created a level of uncertainty around what tomorrow will bring. For millions of students, the trauma is real. 

When our schools reopen a natural inclination is to focus on getting students caught up. From a pragmatic point of view this response makes sense: achievement gaps, learning loss, grade level standards, and standardized testing, are a reality for us. However, it is important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that before our children get back to being students, they need to first get back to being children. As teachers and education leaders we need to address the social and emotional needs of children that they once again have a feeling of normalcy. We need to help them reconnect with their friends and their schools so that they are ready to reengage as learners; and in reality this transition will take some time and attention. 

We Will Need More Teachers and Support Staff, Not Less

As I read the news each day, I am seeing more and more stories written about school district staffing cuts due to budgetary constraints caused by COVID-19. While I can certainly understand the economic impact that shelter in place has caused, the reality is that when our schools do reopen their doors our students will need friendly and helpful faces more than ever. 

  • In order to facilitate rich, engaging, and meaningful small group discourse, we will need our teachers. 
  • In order to provide 1:1 support for our most struggling and vulnerable learners, we will need our teachers. 
  • In order to help connect with our kids, and ask them how they are feeling, we will need our teachers. 
  • In order to meet compliance guidelines, and provide the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that we owe our students, we need our teachers. 

It is our teachers that are on the frontline. It is our teachers that will have the greatest ability and responsibility to reach, support, guide, and connect with our children when they return to our schools. As leaders in education we need to make sure that we have enough teachers to meet those demands, and also make sure that we are supporting our teachers in a way that affords them the opportunity to maximize their reach. 

If we are not personally teaching and supporting our students, then our sole focus should be on providing the help and support to those that do. 


Brian A. Peters, M.Ed., M.S.A., M.B.A.  Professor, Rader School of Business

Brian currently heads Swing Education’s school partnerships in Chicago, Illinois.  Brian has worked in various roles in education from school administrator, teacher, and consultant, as well as in the private sector as a business development manager for both education publishing and education technology companies. He has authored domestic and international award-winning books in education and personnel and professional growth.

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One Comment on “Stress & Trauma: Real Impact of COVID-19 on Students”

  1. Thank you! I think you are right.
    Coronavirus has serious consequences for mental health. And students can certainly be traumatized by this experience. Still, all this happens so quickly and unexpectedly and not all the changes and consequences can be accepted. There is no doubt that we need to pay more attention to students now.

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