• Article
  • Dec 12 2023

UK grad works to address traumatic stress among educators, students

Abigail Van Klompenberg will be teaching a trauma-informed pedagogy course at UK this summer. Photo by Penny Burns, Concordia College.

One University of Kentucky's December graduate will use her Ph.D. to help a group of professionals whose experienced trauma may often go unrecognized.  

After teaching music to elementary students for more than 12 years, Abigail Van Klompenberg set her sights on a new challenge during a particularly challenging time — the fall of 2020. She began working on her Ph.D. in music education at the UK School of Music in the College of Fine Arts as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to be a global health emergency.

Van Klompenberg was familiar with trauma in the classroom. As an elementary educator, she worked with students who were the victims of violence, abuse and pandemic-related traumas. However, she noticed that traumatic stress was also an issue that needed to be addressed at the collegiate level.

“When I came to UK, I began to see how it was affecting both students at the graduate level, like me and my peers, and the undergraduates that I was teaching,” Van Klompenberg said. “I discovered more about this topic through trainings at the UK Center for Trauma and Children. I want to encourage pre-service teachers and practicing teachers to seek out these trainings to continue to grow their knowledge in trauma and to keep advocating for more support.”

For her dissertation, Van Klompenberg conducted a study on women music educators and their lived experience with secondary traumatic stress (STS). Secondary traumatic stress is an emotional strain that can occur when someone is exposed to the traumatic experiences of others. Its symptoms can range from mild to severe and are often like those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“It was a fascinating study that included teachers from across the country. What struck me was no matter the location, whether they were an East Coast or West Coast teacher, rural or urban, they were all experiencing some sort of trauma with their students,” Van Klompenberg said.

Many teachers in the study mentioned that they had received professional development (PD) related to trauma but felt more comprehensive training is needed. They acknowledged that the weight of the needs in their classrooms affected their mental health, but Klompenberg noticed it was difficult for many of the teachers to discuss themselves.

“I had a hard time getting them to speak about themselves and how this impacted their well-being. They were so invested in their students and wanted to share their student stories. I had to take some time in the interviews to remind them to discuss their lived experiences. This speaks to the fact that this is deeply rooted in their empathy and their care for their students.”

Van Klompenberg has a new teaching position at Concordia College in Minnesota and will also be teaching a trauma-informed pedagogy course at UK this summer. In her classroom, she often implements movement to help students regain awareness of their bodies, as trauma can cause individuals to disconnect from their body's sensations and feelings.

“It’s a lot of understanding how physiology, development and learning can be affected by trauma because it changes the way the mind and body works. I hope to instill both an understanding of trauma and the big picture of what it means for the students and teachers, and then also how that would apply in a classroom with specific hands-on strategies or pedagogical choices.

“I hope that the impact I have made through my work continues to bring awareness to secondary traumatic stress — a deeper understanding of it. I think it’s important to provide space for students and teachers to discover how trauma impacts them personally.”

Learn more about UK's December 2023 Commencement Ceremonies at https://commencement.uky.edu