Trauma, Stress & Friend-Making


Student trauma and high levels of stress can manifest in a wide range of socio-academic challenges.  As one example, complex stress can hinder friend making.  This is especially critical for EL students, as social inclusion an integral component of assimilation.  As we strive to create trauma-sensitive learning environments for all students, we must be inclusive of the need to promote healthy social interaction and friend making.  

In looking at refugee Newcomers specifically, here’s what we know: “With no other complications, it may be difficult for resettled refugee children to form healthy peer relationships in the host setting.” (The Newcomer Student, 2016).  Let’s look at why.

“Newcomers face challenges in communicating thoughts and feelings in the new language, and may feel that peers do not understand them. As an added complexity, children who demonstrate elements of post-traumatic stress also score lower on the prosocial behavior scale. In other words, normative social efficacy is compromised.” (The Newcomer Student, 2016)

Friend making and self-esteem are inherently linked.  Learners who feel that they have friends (or at least are largely accepted by their peers) are more likely to demonstrate healthy self-confidence.  The ability to make and keep friends has academic implications, too.  Students who self-identify as partners in a friendship or friendships tend to have healthier self-esteems; and learners with this type of confidence are more likely to perform well academically.

The reverse is also true: individuals who are challenged to make friends are also likely to experience difficulties in learning and participating at school.  For example, “a child who has difficulty recalling, pronouncing, or ordering words in the new language is likely to experience teasing or harassment. … Teasing, in turn, can lead to shame and silence, and ultimately, to isolation. Such stalls create obvious fissures in an individual’s friend-making capacities.” (The Newcomer Student, 2016)

We know that trauma and high levels of stress negatively impact friend making (and consequently self-esteem, school satisfaction and academic success).  We can also acknowledge our responsibility to aid our students in navigating social exchange as a mechanism of trauma informed instruction.

We can begin this work in the classroom using evidence-based strategies.  Here’s how to get started. 

1.  Create safe opportunities for social engagement.  Begin with pair groupings (to encourage talk and decrease the chances of a student feeling “left out”).  Build up to small group engagement.  Initially, schedule short periods of interaction, working up into longer ones.

2.  Begin simply, with exchanges around likes and dislikes or recalling steps in a process.  Invite students to find similarities in their views or observations.

3.  Choose interactive activities that highlight the various strengths of students within the work-social groups.

4.  Aim to initiate small group activities on a schedule, so that students can predict and better prepare themselves for interpersonal exchange.

5.  During periods of sustained student interaction, listen for areas that individual students appear to struggle with or exhibit discomfort in.  Work with individual students to create “social scripts” that can guide them through tricky points in a conversation.

6.  Explicitly teach the meaning of facial expressions and body language.  This is especially helpful for students coming from cultures where there are discrepancies in communicative gestures.

7.  Avoid competitive exchanges.  Instead, offer activities that promote teamwork, sharing, friendly game play and routine conversation.  Have students leave personal items behind when they enter a partner or group setting, to minimize opportunities for conflict.  Slowly incorporate activities that require sharing or taking turns.

 8.  Provide live, video or other examples of similarly aged-students engaged in normative play, conversation or group work. 

9.  Create structure, routine and control, but also allow students some choice and the opportunity to demonstrate self-efficacy.  Anticipate that students will act in mature ways.  Redirect when necessary.

10.  Model how to work through conflict or disagreement.  Offer sentence stems and allow students to practice these exchanges in a safe, monitored setting.

11.  Prepare students to be active listeners.  Emphasize the importance of active listening in a conversation.  Ask students to engage in a conversation and recall details about what their partner revealed during his or her talk time.  Model facial expressions and body language that indicate active listening.

12.  Be mindful that some students will require additional interventions.  Be prompt in processing referrals for those services.   If, after a period of consistent interventions in the classroom, the student continues to struggle in social setting, request the assistance of school staff who are equipped to support the learner at a more advanced level. 

Trauma and stress can impact students’ academic achievement and social wellbeing.   The ability to establish and maintain friendships is a singular facet, but an important one.  We can do our part to introduce tools that help our students to overcome these obstacles.   

Keep in mind that our students are brilliant reminders of the resilience of the human spirit.  There is always hope to be found here, and that hope is bolstered by implementation of timely, appropriate and evidence-rooted strategies in the learning context.