9.4 Childhood Trauma

Man with hands on his head

By Sander van der Wel; CC License By: 2.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Depressed_(4649749639).jpg

You can now see how many factors combine to create each unique student that you will teach, as well as how challenging it can be to meet the needs of such a variety of learners.  Another issue of which new teachers should be aware is that of childhood trauma.  While there is enough information on this topic to fill its own textbook, having a brief overview of the information will be beneficial to your understanding of working with a diverse array of students.

What is trauma?

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway (2014), trauma is “an emotional response to an intense event that threatens or causes harm.  This harm can be physical or emotional, real or perceived, and it can threaten a child or someone close to him or her.  Trauma can be a result of a single event, or it can result from exposure to multiple events over time” (p. 2).  There are many events that might possibly cause trauma.  These include, but are not limited to physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect, effects of poverty, being separated from your loved ones, bullying, domestic or community violence through which harm to a loved one or pet has been witnessed, accidents, natural disasters, and behavior that is unpredictable dur to addiction or mental illness (Child Information Gateway, 2014, p. 2). A traumatic experience is very often overwhelming to the individual, extremely painful or frightening, and include a loss of control and the inability to regulate one’s emotions.  It is vital to remember that a traumatic experience overwhelms one’s ability to cope and that this can be different for each person. Therefore, due to a variety of factors (such as resilience) what might be traumatic to one student might not be to another.  Again, this is not a “one size fits all” scenario.  Each student is an individual.

How Trauma Affects the Brain

Woman covering her face. Stress, shame

There is no shortage of information regarding how trauma affects brain development, but very basically, “when a stressful experience (such as being abused, neglected, or bullied) overwhelms the child’s natural ability to cope” this can cause a “flight, fight or freeze” response.  This response results in changes in the body, including an accelerated heart rate and higher blood pressure.  This also results in changes in how the brain “perceives and responds to the world”. The result of this can be that the “trauma interferes with normal development and can have long lasting effects” (above information from Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2014, p. 2).

How Trauma Affects Learning and Classroom Environment

What is the likelihood that you will have students in your classroom who are dealing with trauma related incidents?  According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (n.d.), More than two-thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by the age of sixteen.  I would say that your chances are quite good that you will encounter students facing these issues.

A variety of learning related tasks are affected by trauma.  Students who have experienced trauma may have difficulty regulating emotions.  They may have impaired cognitive functions.  The ability or organize material sequentially may be difficult.  Transitions may be problematic.  Problem solving might be hard.  They may be self-protective, easily frustrated, and have inconsistent moods.  This is just a brief non-inclusive list of some of the ways in which your classroom could be impacted by students with a background of child trauma.

Maslow vs. Blooms

In a previous chapter, you learned about Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, which guides teachers in the creation of excellent learning experiences.  In psychology, you may have heard about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs (represented below).

Maslow's shows a hierarchy with Self actualization on the top, to Esteem, to Love Belonging, Safety, and Physiological

Look this over carefully.  Now go back and look at Bloom’s Taxonomy?

Reflection:  Can you see any issue with trying to do both at the same time?  Which should come first? What does the above depiction say to you about your students and your classroom?

Read the following and then think about how this might play out in your future classroom.

  • At the base of the pyramid are all of the physiological needs that are necessary for survival. These are followed by basic needs for security and safety, the need to be loved and to have a sense of belonging, and the need to have self-worth and confidence. The top tier of the pyramid is self-actualization, which is a need that essentially equates to achieving one’s full potential, and it can only be realized when needs lower on the pyramid have been met. According to Maslow (1943), one must satisfy lower-level needs before addressing those needs that occur higher in the pyramid. So, for example, if someone is struggling to find enough food to meet his nutritional requirements, it is quite unlikely that he would spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about whether others viewed him as a good person or not. Instead, all of his energies would be geared toward finding something to eat.

Trauma Informed Practice

Some students can exhibit difficult behaviors because of their backgrounds while some will not.  All of them need to be understood and supported.  According to the Substance Abuse for Mental Health Administration (2014), the components of trauma-informed care consist of the creation of a safe environment, supporting and teaching emotional regulation and building relationships and connectedness. Knowing your student is vital.  Trying to understand your students’ triggers is also of key importance.  Remember always that they are not trying to push your buttons (We Are Teachers Staff, 2018).  Their behaviors are often reactions to being triggered by something (such as a loud noise or yelling).  The primary function of the triggered response is to help the child achieve safety in the face of perceived danger.  Seek first to understand the child’s behavior and change your thinking from “what is wrong with this student?” to “what has this student been through?” (Bashant, 2016).

If relationship building, support, understanding and the creation of a safe environment are key to working with your students, what doesn’t work is equally apparent.  Sadly, it is often the first thing educators turn to when these behaviors appear.  The research is clear that punishment of this behavior not only does not work, it is highly detrimental to the student.  According to NEA Today (2016), because traumatic experiences directly shape your students’ brains, the disruptive behavior that is witnessed and often punished isn’t willful disobedience or defiance, but a subconscious effort to self-protect.  Their altered brains are screaming:  Flight!  Flee!  Freeze!  Their goal is to be safe.  Respond in ways that help to make your students feel connected and safe first, and then revisit possible consequences for any broken rules.

Starr Commonweath Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Caelan Soma (2018) offered these tips for understanding and working with students who have experienced trauma.

  1. They are not trying to push your buttons.
  2. They worry about what is going to happen next.
  3. Even if the situation doesn’t seem that bad to you, it is how the child feels that matters, not how you feel.
  4. Trauma does not always have to be associated with violence
  5. You don’t need to know how the trauma was caused to be able to help.
  6. They need to feel that they are good at something and that they can have a positive influence on the world.
  7. There is a direct connection between stress and learning.
  8. Self-regulation is a challenge.
  9. You can ask kids directly what you can do to help them make it through the day.
  10. Be supportive of students with trauma even when they are outside of your classroom.

(for more information, the link to the above article is located in the teacher references section).

There are numerous videos, books, and articles regarding trauma informed best practices.  At the end of this chapter, there is a link to the National Child Traumatic Stress Networks Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators.  This free and easy to download resource has numerous tips and suggestions for teachers.

Social Emotional Learning

When our emotions are engaged, we often have trouble seeing things as they are

Social emotional learning (SEL) has become part of many states’ educational missions, including New York.  SEL can be defined as “the process through which children, youth, and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for other, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions” (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, 2015, para. 1 as cited in NYSED, 2018) p. 6).  Five core social emotional competencies were created as a framework for SEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) 2017).  These are:

This graphic shows the circular relationship of self awareness, self management, responsible decision making, relationship skills, social awareness leading back into self awareness.

According to the New York State Education Department (2018) “extensive research indicates that effective mastery of social emotional competencies is associated with greater well-being and better school performance; whereas the lack of competency in these areas can lead to a variety of personal, social and academic issues” (p. 6). Because of this, New York State Education Department development social emotional learning benchmarks to serve as a guide for educators in the state.  The goals of the SEL benchmarks for New York State schools are:

  1. Develop self-awareness and self-management skills essential to success in school and in life.
  2. Use social awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships.
  3. Demonstrate ethical decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school, and community contexts. (NYSED.gov, 2018).

To learn more about NYSED’s position on SEL, you can find the document online (see resources link at the end of the chapter).

The goal of introducing SEL into the daily activities on a school is, in part, foster a more positive school climate.  Additionally, SEL can help children gain skills needed to succeed in school, in the workplace and in life (www.cfcchildren.org).  According to CASEL, SEL works, and leads to increased academic achievement and improved behavior (casel.org, 2018).

Building Relationships

Over the course of your education to become a teacher you will most likely hear a lot about the value of forming good relationships with your students.  It may sound like a “no-brainer”, but its importance cannot be overstated.  According to the Room 241 Team (Concordia University Portland, 2018), “…for children who have been affected by trauma, strong connections are vital.  Rich relationships with teachers help children form the foundations of resilience” (para. 3).  Venet (2018) echoed the value of relationship building as part of the delicate balancing act of working with trauma-affected students.  The author stated that “…students who have experienced trauma, start by flipping traditional classroom paradigm: Relationships have to come before content…” (para. 6).  The more you know and understand your students, the better.

Connell (2016) suggested ten ways that a teacher can build relationships with their students:

  1. Greet each student every day with both a hello and a good-bye.
  2. Use letters and questionnaires to help you find out about your students.
  3. Get parent input if you can.
  4. Appeal to your students’ interests.
  5. Speak to students with respect.
  6. Attend outside activities.
  7. Let students inside your world (with appropriate boundaries, of course).
  8. Let your students have a voice.
  9. Be real.
  10. Trust that they will all do great things.

This teacher from North Carolina has a unique way of beginning each class: (USA Today, Moments that Give us Hope (2017).

As you move forward in your education, be sure to always remember the importance of listening.  So many students are not listened to at home.  People are distracted.  Do your best to have your students feel heard and valued.  It can make all the difference in the world.

-America’s Promise Alliance, 2015


Every year teachers will meet new groups of students.  Every class will be a unique combination of individuals.  They will vary by many factors related to diversity.  They will have different temperaments and learning styles.  Their motivation levels won’t all be the same.  Some will have experienced many childhood traumas, while some will have experienced few or none.  Their experience and maturity in relation to social emotional learning will differ as well.  However, one thing will remain constant.  Your students will do best in a positive environment where mutual respect is fostered.  Strong teacher-student relationships are the cornerstone of these classrooms.  Having knowledge about yourself, child development and differentiated instruction will help you to have a greater understanding of your students.  You will be learning this as you move forward in your education.  What you cannot be taught is to care about forging these relationships in the first place.  That must already be a part of who you are.

Additional Resources:

One of the first studies on trauma informed practices in public school was covered in a full-length documentary entitled: Paper Tigers.  It can be rented on numerous sites, including You Tube here: