Working with First-Responder and Military Students with PTSD

ptsd-symptomsTeaching criminal justice studies I have had the privilege of working with active-duty military from all branches, military reservist, military veterans, and law enforcement officers from federal, state, county, and city agencies over the years. One thing that bonds me with my students is that I am one of them. I have walked a mile in their boots and it helps me relate to the struggles of working a demanding and often dangerous job while balancing family and studies.

I am a former army combat paratrooper and former LEO who was forced to use lethal force to protect life.

It is a fair and honest assessment that I am bias towards my students, humbled by their service and dedication, and their commitment to better their position by studying to earn their degree. Many professors will say they enjoy their students, but I say without hesitation that I love my students because I am also a blue-collar scholar.

PTSD and Students

ptsdWorking with a student who has been diagnosed with PTSD and others who have displayed signs of possibly having PTSD has given me a unique perspective of their needs and some study tips that have helped calm and even help in their recovery. When a student feels connected and I have earned the students trust, together we can make a personal plan for academic success as they work both on their studies and recovery.

College assignments are often designed to get the student out of their comfort zone, to challenge preconceived ideas, and get the student to critically think with an open-mind of other possibilities to help solve a problem. The stress of college due dates and the academic rigor of the work can sometimes be a trigger for the adult learner with PTSD.

To help eliminate this problem, I open assignments early, allow the due dates to be flexible, due not time quizzes or exams, and check-in with the student regularly. I care more about the academic quality then rushing the student and causing the student to hold back and feeling anxieties and stressed when I can help remove these roadblocks to success.

Turning Point for One Student

originalOne of my students was having trouble sleeping through the night. He told me that around 3:00 AM he is wide awake with racing thoughts and often feels like he is back in combat. His erratic sleeping patterns was causing him additional issues because he was exhausted. He was being treated at the local VA, and was making progress but he still could not sleep through the night. His physical combat wounds have healed but the unforeseen wounds of PTSD are still present.

I gave the student my private cell phone number and told him the next night if he wakes up to call me, I think I have a plan that can help.

Two nights later my student called me at 3:20 AM in the morning. He was talking fast, apologizing for waking me, and I could tell he was in a panic. After a few minutes of talking he told me when he wakes up he often just goes into the living room so he doesn’t wake his wife, puts on his headphones, and just listens to music in the dark. He told me he was wide awake with racing thoughts tonight.

It was then, that I had an idea if the student was wide awake and just listening to music in the dark why not have the student try to focus on his studies. I suggested this was a great time to spend reading the course material and applying this to your writing. It will change the thoughts and behavior of just sitting alone with unhealthy thoughts in the dark. The student said he never thought about doing school work when he cannot go back to sleep from ongoing nightmares and reliving combat experiences. I also encouraged him to talk with his therapist about the idea and make sure that the mental health care provider thought this was a good idea.

downloadA few days later when I entered the class, I saw that the student was actively engaging in the class assignments and responding to his learning peers. I could also see the timestamps of when he was working (3:00-4:40 AM). The students work was much improved and his engagement was stellar, and going above the assignment expectations and required number of postings. I emailed the student and he responded that he enjoys working on his school work when he cannot sleep.

Towards the end of the class the student sent me an email and it took me awhile to fully read and comprehend the impact that I had on my learning partner. The student told me that he is now sleeping through the night. He told me that he shared with his VA support group how he has turned the corner by finding alternative ways of coping when he could not sleep through the night by doing school work. He even joked that his therapist wanted to know what VA center I worked because this suggestion moved him forward in his treatment.

The bottom line was by having compassion and understanding of how PTSD was affecting my student, together we came up with a plan to stay focused and reduce stress.

Our class has been over for a while and the student stays in contact with me giving me updates as he is closing in on his goal of earning his undergraduate degree.

veteran-laptopTeaching is not all about lectures, quizzes, exams, and grading papers. It is about getting to know your adult learners and working a plan for success. The student still is active in his own PTSD therapy and he told me he has found his passion now to help others suffering from PTSD. My student says I helped him turn the corner by just listening and offering a new study strategy.

I have worked with several other PTSD scholars and we have made progress together.

In reality this warrior scholar inspired me to continue trying to help our military, veterans, and first responders who have PTSD continue their education as they recover from their service related invisible wounds.

If you have any suggestions that can help students with PTSD please feel free to share.

About the Author

Mark Bond

Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms instructor for more than 33 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in criminal justice, and M.Ed in educational leadership with Summa Cum Laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education (EdD) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.