Abstract: "We ALL Need Additional Training in Trauma": School Social Workers Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

"We ALL Need Additional Training in Trauma": School Social Workers Respond to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kate Watson, MSW, Doctoral Student, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA
Gordon Capp, PhD, Assistant professor, California State University, Fullerton, Fullerton, CA
Ron Avi Astor, PhD, Professor, UCLA, Woodland Hills, CA
Michael Kelly, PhD, Professor, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL
Rami Benbenishty, PhD, Professor Emritus, Hebrew university of Jerusalem, Jerualem, Israel
Background and Purpose: The COVID-19 pandemic has been a potentially traumatic experience for all of us. Across the world, people have faced the possibility of severe illness and loss of loved ones, threats of lost work and income, and increased stress that has contributed to escalating domestic violence, child maltreatment, and mental health challenges. In a recent U.S. survey of school social workers (SSWs), a sizable proportion of respondents mentioned serious concerns about meeting students’ mental health (MH) and trauma-related needs when schools reopened. In an effort to better understand SSWs’ views about trauma and school-based responses, our study was guided by the following research questions: What are SSWs’ perspectives about trauma in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and schools reopening? What do SSWs highlight as the trauma-related needs for school constituents during and after the pandemic?

Methods: Data for this study come from a national survey of SSWs (N=1,275). Participants were recruited through national, state, and other social work organizations with requests to complete an online survey. In addition to quantitative responses, approximately 35% of participants, or 450 SSWs, responded to several open-ended questions. A second round of open-ended questions was sent to participants who volunteered their email addresses. This work presents combined findings from all qualitative responses received during June-July 2020. Data were analyzed using a deductive coding strategy. Analysis began with development of a consensus-based conceptual model for a trauma-informed school based on a review of the literature, which was then used to generate relevant codes. All participant responses were independently coded by two members of the research team.

Results: SSW responses supported our heuristic for a trauma-informed school. Themes included:

  • Recognition of COVID-19 and 2020 social inequity, racism, and political strife as a unique period in history and potentially traumatic experience.
  • A call for universal trauma training and additional MH resources, including those related to self-care and secondary traumatic stress, to respond to current events.
  • The importance of addressing students’ social and emotional needs during and after the pandemic.
  • The need for better integration of SSW voices in administrative decisions related to pandemic response, and expanded capacity to meet schools’ and students’ heightened MH and trauma needs.
  • A requirement for new COVID-related and trauma-informed organizational policies and practice guidelines.
  • The challenges of addressing all facets of safety (physical, emotional, and psychological) simultaneously during a pandemic.
  • The essentiality and difficulty of maintaining school-based relationships during remote learning.

Conclusions and Implications: Results demonstrated that SSWs inherently understood key components of a trauma-informed approach in schools and were often trying to implement it during the pandemic. At the same time, SSWs reported many challenges. Whole-school, trauma-informed approaches require the support of a school’s administration and district leadership. Everyone—from principals to bus drivers—needs to be involved in the creation of a trauma-informed school and benefit from its existence. SSWs and other mental health professionals must partner with school leaders, teachers, and other stakeholders to create and sustain trauma-informed approaches.