Using Ecological Systems Theory in Student Trauma During COVID-19

The study covered in this summary was published on as a preprint and has not yet been peer reviewed.

Key Takeaways

  • The factors related to trauma and the potential underlying causes for the underperformance of trauma-impacted students were framed in Bronfenenner’s ecological systems theory (EST).

  • EST views child development as a complex system of relationships influenced by various levels of the surrounding environment, from immediate settings of family and school to broad cultural values, laws, and customs.

  • This case study reveals how certain dynamics within the EST layers affected one school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Its purpose was to examine how teachers at the school experienced a trauma-informed online professional development and social emotional learning (SEL) program intended to improve student outcomes, teacher perceptions, and teacher–student relationships.

  • During times, the ability to maintain student outcomes and teacher–student relationships, rather than allowing them to deteriorate, is quite a feat and an aspect that requires additional research.

Why This Matters

  • Among American children, mental health conditions stemming from trauma are worrisome, especially due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in collective trauma.

  • As students, children bring the trauma with them into the classroom. They learn differently as a result of effects on the brain that relate to several impairments, leading to poor school performance. Nonetheless, educators may not always comprehend what is happening.

  • Through schools, students are more likely to receive assistance for their mental health needs, and educators become the first to engage them in the healing process.

  • Teachers should be equipped with trauma-informed practices and SEL curricula.

  • When educators misinterpret trauma symptoms as behavioral issues, their response to students is often detrimental to learning.

  • Students’ behavioral problems and teachers’ assumptions have led to high turnover rates among teachers and unproductive environments in which both teachers and students are very stressed.

  • The relationship between mindfulness and trauma has become the key focus for much research. Students who may encounter negative experiences that inflict emotional wounds or trauma can be guarded from harm if they practice mindfulness.

Study Design

  • The study included six participants who were teachers in a K-8, low-income, minority population transitional kindergarten-to-eighth-grade charter school in San Bernardino, California.

  • With the school being physically closed because of COVID-19, remote learning had been implemented. The school had to adapt swiftly, and the teachers and students were adjusting and dealing with high emotional demands.

  • The researchers used various assessment tools: the Teacher–Student Relationship Scale, Teacher Perception Scale, and Student Outcomes Survey.

Key Results

  • The teachers’ outlook on SEL showed improvement, especially online.

  • This improvement aided the teachers in implementing community circles and SEL infused with mindfulness in their online classrooms.

  • The progress may have aided them in maintaining their relationships with the students and may have assisted the students with academic and stress outcomes.

  • The teachers remarked that the students were able to either maintain their grades or, with even more teacher attention, advance at a slow pace.


  • The pandemic may have contributed to more stress and complexities.

  • This small case study only included six participating teachers, so it may not be relevant to all educators and students. A larger and more diverse sample would be necessary to make the findings of this study generalizable.

Study Disclosures

This is a summary of a preprint research study, “A Case Study Addressing Trauma Needs During COVID-19 Remote Learning From An Ecological Systems Theory Framework,” written by Sharmeen Mahmud, EdD, LMFT, Pepperdine University, Malibu, California, on Research Square , provided to you by Medscape. This study has not yet been reviewed. The full text of the study can be found on

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