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Educators Learn Insights on Building a Safety Net for Students Who Suffered Trauma

Hurricane Dorian last September swept through the Bahamas and hit North Carolina, displacing many people, including the students and staff of New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, N.C.

A teacher in the school district told Julie Varnam, the district’s assistant superintendent of student support services, that in the aftermath of Dorian, she had found herself standing in line with her own students, waiting for food donations.

Varnam realized then that the students and staff were experiencing trauma together. She wondered why don’t schools have a safety net for their students to support them as they cope with trauma?

At an AASA national conference session on Friday, school leaders learned how social and emotional learning can be that safety net. Such programs can ensure students get the support they need to attain maximum growth, Varnam said. These special programs also help students and their communities respond to trauma in an orderly fashion, weaving together a safety net that catches students and helps them get back up on course.

“You can have the most phenomenal instruction … but if your kids aren't accessing it because of social emotional needs, then it’s really a waste,” Varnam said.

She noticed that social and emotional learning programs were not available at all of the district’s schools. Even among those that existed, some programs were disorderly and ineffective.

While many schools nationwide are adopting social and emotional learning programs, Varnam said the most effective ones are designed to support students’ emotional and academic growth with lasting impact.

She advocated for her district to adopt a logic-based model to ensure schools are maximizing the available resources to support and improve the circumstances of challenged and traumatized students. Districts should use accumulated, well-rounded data, including, demographics and graduation and dropout rates to effectively address weaknesses and sweep for red flags among students and staff.

Some strategies to build scaffolds include training every single staff member−even custodians and lunch line attendees because they also interact with students. Varnum recommended SEL programs such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social Emotional Learning and Darkness to Light, which promote student wellness, education and mental health.

Varnam said it is important that the community and the schools are informed and involved in creating this mental health safety net since. As she stated, the school mirrors the community. A strong school support system helps the whole community.

Varnam and her fellow presenter, Fredrica Nash, an educational consultant at the Center for Education Services at RTI International, introduced the All Hands on Deck program and gave the audience advice on which aspects of creating a strong and effective social community superintendents and school administrators should focus on.  

More information about Varnam and Nash’s presentation can be found at

(Amanda Zhang is a junior at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego and an intern with the AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

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