By Nemanja Arandelovic, Middle School Counselor, American International School of Vienna (Austria), ISCA Taskforce Member
When the Covid-19 pandemic started, as a school counselor I tried to support my school community by doing psychoeducation around relevant topics such as trauma, anxiety, and resilience. We are almost two years into the pandemic, and I figured out that we all need something more to help us go through this period. As Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” I discovered a relatively new theory that helped me to stay optimistic and hopeful that psychological growth from the pandemic will occur in the future.
Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a theory that was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the mid-1990s. Their premise holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward. "People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have, and a better understanding of how to live life," says Tedeschi.
Five areas of growth
To evaluate whether and to what extent someone has achieved growth after a trauma, psychologists use a variety of self-report scales. Tedeschi and Calhoun developed one of these scales, and named it Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI) (Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1996). It looks for positive responses in five areas:
Appreciation of life.
Relationships with others.
New possibilities in life.
PTG Vs. Resilience
Resilience is a well-known term that is often discussed in different SEL programs and counseling curriculum lessons. It involves the ability to more easily rebound from trauma and quickly return to one's normal state of being. PTG, on the other hand, goes above and beyond resilience. It explains what happens when someone experiences a traumatic event and then ultimately finds a sense of personal growth.
Transformation of Communities
PTG can happen to individuals, as well as to groups and communities. When a crisis occurs in a community, people often react by becoming more interconnected. People feel a common sense of purpose, and a spirit of cooperation begins to replace normal competitiveness. For the community, this often equates to a kind of PTG. One study showed evidence of collective PTG after natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. In these situations, people developed communal coping strategies.
Curriculum can help students to achieve PTG
As educators, we can help the young people in our lives achieve growth from our collective experience. Curriculums that incorporate opportunities for children to write about and discuss what it was like to live through this time, acts of kindness they witnessed, new skills they learned, or what they are most looking forward to doing as a class in the future can help children think about how the world is working together as one community to help people everywhere.
Promoting PTG in counseling sessions
The most basic conditions for PTG to occur include making sure basic safety and survival needs are met. During our one-on-one session, as school counselors, we should take care to meet students in their current mindset and avoid minimizing their suffering. However, the concepts of PTG can gradually be introduced by helping students reflect on insights from their experience. We can help students see that positive outcomes such as these are true for them:
I discovered that I’m stronger than I thought I was.
I know how to better handle difficulties in life.
I have been able to change my priorities about what is important in life.
At the very least, we can help students understand that PTG is a normal process that can be a possibility for them to achieve.
As counselors, it is important for us to help our students understand that it is not good for them to try to avoid negative feelings because it prevents them from living fully. We are the ones in the best position to help students increase their “psychological flexibility” so they can face the world with openness and exploration.
Another common pitfall is that students, and everyone generally, have the belief that stress is harmful. This assumption can create an additional burden of “stress about stress.” We should help students change their mindset to focus their attention on the opportunities for growth that accompany stress.
My hope is that PTG will be one of the aftereffects of the Coronavirus pandemic. With all the information and research available about this theory, we as school counselors and educators can all try to help our students and ourselves to develop a heightened sense of appreciation, more authentic relationships, and a new sense of resilience and self-confidence.
Collier, L. (2016, November). Growth after trauma. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma
Ferlazzo, L. (2021, October). Helping Our Students Achieve 'Post-Traumatic Growth'. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-helping-our-students-achieve-post-traumatic-growth/2021/10
5 Domains of Post-Traumatic Growth [Photograph]. (2019, April). https://complextraumahealing.wordpress.com/2019/04/08/5-domains-of-post-traumatic-growth/
Hagan, E. (2019, April). Posttraumatic Growth. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/surviving-thriving/201904/posttraumatic-growth
Kaufman, S. B. (2020, April). Post-Traumatic Growth: Finding Meaning and Creativity in Adversity. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/post-traumatic-growth-finding-meaning-and-creativity-in-adversity/
Post-Traumatic Growth. (2021). https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/basics/post-traumatic-growth
Taylor, S. (2020, April). The Coronavirus and Post-Traumatic Growth. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-coronavirus-and-post-traumatic-growth/