The Impact of Trauma on Children

By Doug Van Oort

The Bad News: Researchers have found that “exposure to unrelenting stress and repeated traumas can change a child’s brain, making it…harder to focus and learn.” (Flannery) The Good News: Educators can create trauma-sensitive classrooms where children learn to calm themselves when stressed or experiencing trauma and return to learning. (Flannery)

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can “derail a child’s development and lead to a host of health and social challenges throughout a lifetime.” (ACEs Data) Researchers have found that 56% of Iowa adults had experienced at least one of the eight types of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) during their childhood and that 14% had experienced four or more! (ACEs Data)

The eight types of ACEs are:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Substance abuse in the home
  • Family member with mental illness
  • Incarcerated family member
  • Separation/divorce
  • Domestic violence

As the number of ACEs increases, “so does the likelihood of having a wide range of poor outcomes.” (ACEs Data) While still in school, children who’ve experienced trauma score below peers in reading and math, even in homes with adequate income and parental education. They also are twice as likely to demonstrate aggressive behaviors. (Flannery) As they grow older, they’re more likely to adopt risky behaviors (smoking and alcohol or drug abuse), develop health problems (diabetes, heart disease, depression, STDs, early death) (ACEs Data), and become adults who are violent, miss work often, and marry often. (Flannery)

Why is this so? Researchers have found that great stress or trauma activates the brain’s fight, flight, or freeze responses while shutting down areas of the brain where learning occurs. The brain is “fundamentally changed” to adapt for survival. (Flannery) These children struggle “with all areas of language, word retrieval, writing” and memory; the next day after being taught, “it’s like they never were taught.” (Flannery) Being in a “constant, fear-activated state of hyper-awareness” results in a range of responses from being quick to rage, defiance, disrespect, and aggression to appearing like “they’re zoning out” or “shutting down”.

Flannery asks, “So, what’s an educator to do?” As mentioned earlier there’s good news. Research shows that “building caring connections promotes positive experiences for children…and helps those with a history of trauma heal.” (ACEs Data) All children experience stress, but in home and school environments with supportive adult relationships, the effects of stress are softened and brought back down to normal more easily, which also helps them “develop a healthy response to stress.” (ACEs Data)

Suggestions for educators from the experts:

  • Don’t punish a child for symptoms of a real medical issue (trauma and stress disorders can be found in the DSM-V). (Flannery)
    • In particular, out-of-school suspensions should be avoided as they “likely feed the school-to-prison pipeline.” (Flannery)
    • It can be more traumatizing for kids to be picked up from school by parents when suspended. Instead, teach them to “pull themselves together and get back to learning.” One principal stated, “These kids’ best hope is to get a good education, so we want them in the classroom, and we want them to trust us.” (Bernstein)
  • Create a trauma-sensitive classroom where kids can feel safe and build resilience.
    • Greet and take time with each student at the start of each day before “diving into tasks” or learning.
    • Offer a “comfort zone” where kids can take a break and calm down, such as a beanbag chair. (Flannery)
    • Give options from which students can choose when they begin having troubles, such as putting on headphones to listen to classical music, going to a break area, or going for a walk. (Bernstein)
  • Keep a neat and uncluttered classroom. Mess and disorganization can be overwhelming and contribute to stress. (Flannery)
  • Paint or decorate walls with cool colors. (Flannery)
  • Have predictable classroom routines with advance warnings of changes (Flannery) and reduce the number of transitions. According to Chris Blodgett, clinical psychologist, change means danger for traumatized kids. (Bernstein)
  • Ask students to repeat verbal instructions. (Flannery)
  • Use written instructions and visual prompts as much as possible. (Flannery)
  • Give short movement breaks every 30 minutes. (Flannery)
  • Educate everyone in the school community – teachers, paraeducators, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, playground monitors – on the effects of trauma and the importance of staying away from “reflexive discipline” and helping kids learn to calm themselves. “You can have a great trauma-sensitive classroom,” says Susan Cole, Trauma and Learning Policy Institute Director, “but if the child goes into the hall or cafeteria and gets yelled at, he can get re-triggered.” (Bornstein)

ACES Data in Iowa. (2015). Beyond ACES: Building hope and resiliency in Iowa. http://www.iowaaces360.org/uploads/1/0/9/2/10925571/aces_execsummary2016_snglpgs.pdf
Bornstein, D. (2013). Schools that separate the child from the trauma. Fixes on Facebook: New York Times. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/13/separating-the-child-from-the-trauma/
Flannery, M.E. (2016). How trauma is changing children’s brains. National Education Association (NEA). Education policy: School climate. http://neatoday.org/2016/05/17/trauma-and-children/

14 thoughts on “The Impact of Trauma on Children”

  1. From the short article I just read, some of the signs of a child who has experienced trauma can look an awful lot like a child diagnosed with ADHD. Diagnoses of ADHD with a healthcare professional will hopefully help paraeducators, teachers, and adminstration deciphor appropriately between the two.
    Some ofhte techniques for helping a child who has been traumatized can also help a child with ADHD, and perhaps in some cases a child with ADHD had been traumatized due to lack of knowledge of the child’s disorder. I would even venture to say that any child with a diagnoses of any kind, could have been traumatized and therefore this techniques could be helpful for them as well. An article covering children with various diagnoses and exhibiting signs of trauma, might be helpful. Does death of a parent or close relative count for trauma? I believe it does, no matter the circumstances of the death.

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    • If learners that suffer ACE are being diagnosed with ADHD incorrectly, we have to remember that abuse is rarely or if every reported. Providers can only diagnose using the symptoms they are given. Often times, children are taken to the doctor by their abuser to assure no information is shared or by a the parent that is also being abused to make sure their secret is kept for fear of losing the child to the CPS system.

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  2. I agree with Erika. Reading this article makes me think of a few students in our classroom who will definitely be diagnosed as ADD and/or ADHD, in their future. (I work in a Kindergarten classroom). Some of the various techniques to building a Trauma Sensitive Classroom are being used by the classroom teacher and do work on these students.
    I was wondering about how a death of a parent at a pre-school age, Birth to 2 years, would traumatize a child and show up as the child enters school. A little more information in relation to the death of a close relative and how this effects a child, and what support systems to reach out to would be great.

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  3. I also thought about the death of family member and why that isn’t considered trauma, or an adverse childhood experience.
    The article definitely highlights the need for appreciating every student’s path and the fact that there may be so many reasons for behaviors they might display. I thought the section about building trust and creating an environment where connections are encouraged was particularly interesting.

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  4. While reading the article I was reminded of how most of my students are when they walk into my room. They give a sigh of relief. All of my students struggle in math. While in their math classroom, they tend to feel anxiety for not understanding the concepts and falling behind even more. I believe I have created an atmosphere in my math intervention classroom with soft lighting and small work spaces for individual and small group learning that sets their minds more at ease.

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  5. Sometimes we forget just how difficult some home lives are for students and that school is one of the only safe and predictable places they have

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  6. Sound strategies for preschool thru 4. I worry about the older grades (5-12) where many forms of trauma occur coinciding with the developmental, psychological and environmental challenges faced by this population.

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  7. Interesting to note that I have most of the childhood experiences that lead to trauma… Learning how to cope with what has happened to you and childhood in a positive way can lead to a productive adulthood.

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  8. I agree with Diane that we often forget the difficulties/trauma many of our students deal with in their home environments. It can be especially hard to remember this in the middle of an outburst or other unwanted behaviors. As the article suggested, I always try to build trust and create a safe and caring environment in our classroom. While we can’t control the experiences our students face at home, my goal is for all my students to feel safe and cared for when they are in school/in our classroom.

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  9. There are so many children in the classrooms now with underlying problems that came about with their association with trauma. It looks very different in every child. Children in the same house, same parents, same ethics same everything will be very different. Then when you add trauma to it will be facing the same problem but will act out in very different ways. They need to be tested as separate cases and have needs that need to met and be met with logical understanding.

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  10. I found the information on how trauma affects language development interesting.
    Learning disabilities can be directly linked to traumatic events during developmental years, and language is one specific area. Other traumatic situations that affect learning include poverty, incarceration of a parent, family member, or the child, being homeless.

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  11. This article has much insightful, useful content, particularly about “zoning out” being a response to trauma as well as instruction seeming to roll off a traumatized student’s shoulders. The latter I think all readers can relate to, as it is hard to pay attention to something external when you are filled with strong emotions internally like fear. The above responses about the zoning out behavior resembling ADHD is interesting, and luckily a calm, safe place can help both.

    Regarding the trauma of the death of a parent or any loved one, I believe that would fit under the separation/divorce category, or maybe the category should be renamed death/divorce.

    Last, but what can be done when a severely traumatized student’s behavior in a classroom – such as showing aggressive, violent tendencies towards students and teachers – traumatizes other students?

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  12. Working in an Elementary school I have experienced working with a child that had severe behavior and it was stressful for me to work with that child. He had not at the time been diagnosed. It began in kindergarten and progressed when he went to first grade. Some days were mentally and physically challenged working with the student. He ended up leaving the school and going to another school. His mother did decide to put him on medicine that was given to him in the morning and she went to the school during his lunch time to give him another dose. If she had done that for us while he was in our school, things would have been a lot better.

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  13. I feel very fortunate to work within a school system that cares not only about the students performance academically, but looks at each individual students background. When working with students that have an IEP, it is very important to understand their background and what services work best for them. Trauma at home or school can greatly effect their ability to be present for learning. Letting them know that as educators, we are there to listen, encourage and help them feel successful. It is also important to guide them to the professionals that can be of service with emotional issues.

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