Using Ecological Systems Theory in Student Trauma During COVID-19

the study covered in this summary has been published on as a preprint and has not yet been peer reviewed.

Key points to remember

  • The relative factors and potential underlying causes of underachievement of traumatized students have been identified in Bronfenbrenner’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 family and school settings to general cultural values, laws and customs.

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

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

  • In these unprecedented times, the ability to sustain student achievement and teacher-student relationships, rather than allow them to deteriorate, is quite a feat and something that needs further research.

why it matters

  • Among American children, mental health issues resulting from trauma are concerning, especially given the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in collective trauma.

  • As students, children bring trauma with them into the classroom. They learn differently due to effects on the brain linked to several impairments, resulting in poor academic performance. However, educators do not always understand what is happening.

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

  • Teachers must be equipped with trauma-informed practices and SEL programs.

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

  • Student behavior issues and teacher assumptions have led to high teacher turnover rates and unproductive environments in which teachers and students are highly stressed.

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

study design

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

  • With the school physically closed due to COVID-19, remote learning had been implemented. The school had to adapt quickly, and teachers and students were adapting and facing high emotional demands.

  • The researchers used various assessment tools: the teacher-student relationship scale, the teacher perception scale, and the student achievement survey.

Principle results

  • Teachers’ view of SEL has improved, especially online.

  • This enhancement has helped teachers implement community circles and mindfulness-infused SEL in their online classrooms.

  • The progress may have helped them maintain their relationships with students and may have helped students achieve academic results and stress.

  • Teachers noticed that students were able to either maintain their grades or, with even more attention from teachers, move forward 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 needed to make the results of this study generalizable.

Study Disclosures

This is an abstract 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, CA, at Research Square, made available to you by Medscape. This study has not yet been peer reviewed. The full text of the study is available at

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Sharon D. Cole