Trauma can affect a child’s learning and behavior in many ways. With trauma-informed care, you can help them cope in the classroom.
From an elementary student who has outbursts of anger during class to a teenager who freezes up and can’t focus on exams, there are many ways that trauma can manifest and impact the learning process.
Rather than thinking of these as disruptive behaviors, trauma-informed care offers another perspective: What happened to these children, and how can we help them?
Childhood adversities and trauma (CAT) can stem from a variety of circumstances. In short, it’s a natural response to anything that feels too overwhelming for a child’s developmental state.
Types of trauma include:
- abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual)
- an accident
- community violence
- loss of a loved one
- medical trauma
- a natural disaster
- neglect or abandonment
- witnessing something horrific
When a child experiences trauma, the brain’s stress response becomes activated, which takes up a lot of emotional bandwidth.
Out of necessity, learning may take a backseat, explains Andrew Gerber, MD, PhD, president and medical director of Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut.
“Trauma puts the child’s mind and the body into fight-or-flight mode and redirects energy away from more sophisticated developmental needs, like well-tuned emotion regulation, cognitive processes (such as attention), and high-level social cognition like identity and relationship formation,” he says.
Trauma can also lead to the freeze response (shutting down to avoid threats) and the fawn response (focusing on the needs of others and neglecting yourself).
As a result of these prolonged stress responses, research — including a 2019 study — shows that childhood trauma literally changes the structure of the brain in two main areas:
- hippocampus: learning, memory, spatial relationships
- prefrontal cortex: attention, emotional regulation, problem-solving
What is trauma?
Trauma is an emotional or physical response to one or more harmful or life threatening events or circumstances with lasting adverse effects on your mental and physical well-being, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
There are many signs of childhood trauma.
These can often mirror the symptoms of other diagnoses, explains Carlea Dries, PsyD, a psychologist and school neuropsychologist in Paramus, New Jersey.
Trauma-related behaviors may look similar to:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- intermittent explosive disorder (IED)
“For example, a child in a ‘fight response’ may demonstrate impulsive decision-making, engage in risky behaviors, and have difficulty self-regulating. A child in a ‘freeze response’ might withdraw from others, appear to zone out, or be incapable of making decisions,” says Dries.
“Any of these signs can limit the amount of learning the individual can access, as well as have a negative influence on interpersonal relations,” she adds.
Cognitive and learning-related signs of trauma in the classroom include:
- difficulty concentrating in class
- being easily distracted
- test anxiety
- trouble adapting to changes
- reduced memory capacity
Behavioral signs that might show up in class include:
- angry outbursts
- avoiding peers and teachers
- conflict with peers
- lowered grades
- trouble with eye contact
Emotional signs of trauma that can interfere with learning include:
- intrusive thoughts
- a lack of motivation
- low self-esteem
- social anxiety, which might look like not communicating with their peers or teachers
- difficulty with emotional regulation
Somatic (body-based) signs include:
- frequent illness
- physical ailments, like stomach aches
Trauma-informed practices switch the emphasis from what’s “wrong” with a child, to what the child may have experienced.
“Focusing on the behaviors can deter us from the underlying issue of trauma. Encouraging and promoting emotional intelligence — the ability or willingness to look beyond a behavior — is important, since anxiety and trauma can show up as disruptive behaviors,” says Albert Nguyen, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist in Palo Alto, California.
Trauma-informed care may help children:
- feel safe in their physical environment
- avoid being retraumatized
- connect with educators
- improve school performance
- stay in school
“At the end of the day, it’s about relationships,” says Nguyen. ”Rapport is the single-strongest indicator of success in therapy, and it’s no different in a classroom. Fostering positive reinforcement and strength-based strategies is key.”
What the research says
Reviews of the existing literature show that there’s no agreed-upon framework for trauma-informed practices and, overall, more research is needed.
That said, results show that schools may be one appropriate avenue for trauma prevention and intervention:
- A 2019 study found that when astaff members incorporated trauma-aware practices in the classroom, students improved their academic performance.
- A 2020 study of trauma-informed elementary schools saw significant improvements in the classroom compared to those without this system in place.
- Another 2019 study found that trauma-informed teaching improved trauma symptoms for children experiencing foster care and the juvenile justice system.
Childhood trauma can have far-reaching impacts in the classroom — and in life.
The more that parents, caregivers, and educators can help mitigate some of these effects, the better-prepared children will be for success.
There are many resources about how to provide trauma-informed care:
- Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center
- SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative
- Positive and Adverse Childhood Experiences (PACES)
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)
- Sesame Street in Communities
You may also find it helpful to delve into a few books on this subject. Some useful titles include:
- “Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing” by Peter A. Levine, PhD, and Maggie Kline, LMFT
- “Trauma-Informed Social-Emotional Toolbox for Children & Adolescents” by Lisa Weed Phifer, NCSP, and Laura K. Sibbald, CCC-SLP
- “Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationships” by Laurence Heller, PhD, and Aline LaPierre, PsyD
- “The Body Keeps The Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, MD