Trauma is much more common than most of us think and can significantly impact a student’s ability to succeed in school. Trauma can result in cognitive and behavioral changes and impact how students views themselves, how they view the world, how they process information, and how they perceive and respond to their environment (including voice tones, lighting, sounds, and proximity of others).
Childhood trauma does not refer exclusively to child maltreatment (i.e. abuse and/or neglect). Trauma can result from any aversive event:
- Fear-based parenting/physical punishment
- Witnessing or hearing domestic violence
- Hearing about, witnessing or experiencing community violence (e.g., shootings, stabbings, or fighting at home, in the neighborhood, or at school)
- Witnessing police activity or having a close relative incarcerated
- Out of home placements/change of caregivers
- Frequent moves/school changes
- Childhood illness/hospital experiences/birth complications
- Humiliating or deeply disturbing experience
- Media and technology stress/digital harassment
- Substance abuse in the home
- Chronic disruptions in the first three years of life
- Divorce/blended families
- Living in chronically chaotic environments in which housing and financial resources are not consistently available
- Parent with mental health problems
- Loss of, or separation with, caregiver
- Absent/indifferent parenting
- Emotional violence/digital harassment
- Birth order/sibling overload
- School pressure/competition
Trauma and the Brain
There are three main brain regions: the “thinking brain” or neo-cortex, the “emotional brain” or limbic system, and the “survival brain” or the brainstem. Traumatized children tend to use predominantly the emotional and survival brains. It is important that children are met where they are currently at (i.e. if they are in survival or “fight, flight, or freeze” mode). It is helpful to think about meeting developmental needs, such that when a child is feeling either chronically or situationally challenged, you meet the needs of the survival and emotional brain first. When a child feels safe and supported, they are then more capable of utilizing their “thinking” brain.
“Thinking Brain” Interventions: social exploration, complex conversation, storytelling, performing arts, formal education, cognitive-behavioral interventions, goal formulation, academic achievement, cause and effect learning, homework, positive behavioral supports.
“Emotional Brain” Interventions: sharing with a friend, social experiences, narrative, complex movement, mutual engagement, creative arts, parallel play, small group activity, individual play therapy, psychotherapy, feeling charts, emotional expression, time in, journaling, feelings charades.
“Survival Brain” Interventions: healthy adult support and nurturing, rhythmic movement, patterned sensory input (trauma releasing experiences), responsive caregiving, attunement, massage, drumming, counting, focusing, belly breathing, replacement experiences, containment, distraction, sensory rooms, sensory snacks, music, relaxation practices, guided imagery, primal nurturing.
Creating safety is critically important for traumatized children. Schools can greatly help traumatized children by creating safe places:
- Have a safety zone, safe haven, “time-in” or relaxation room immediately available. It is important to have a safe place within the classroom where a student can have some privacy and solitude when they feel overwhelmed.
- Have rooms that are clean and clutter free.
- Create a home-like, as opposed to institution-like, feeling.
- Use warm colors and soothing surroundings.
- Keep sensory tools available to provide students with soothing sensory options to help relax their nervous system (e.g., stress balls, play-doh, etc.).
- Trauma-impacted students often become overwhelmed by noise, crowds, chaos, or trying to engage in social interactions, such as during an assembly or recess. It is important to assess what bugs these students and offer alternatives, such as going to the library, the resource room, an empty classroom, or tutoring center.
It is also important that school personnel are perceived by children to be safe. Safe individuals are those who:
- Understand, or make efforts to understand, the internal world of the child (i.e., how they are thinking or feeling, for example, “I know James got real close to you and that startled you. I think you hit sometimes when you are startled or people get too close, is that right?”).
- Use their smile, voice, and touch to help make a child feel safe.
- Are consistent and predictable. Establish yourself as a well-regulated adult who can be an emotional anchor for kids that become stressed.
Safe and emotionally regulated adults need to provide containment for the traumatized child. Containment involves reducing or mitigating threat and sensory triggers that create hyperaroused or hypoaroused states in vulnerable students. It can also involve managing the expansion or influence of a hyperaroused or hypoaroused state (e.g., helping a hyperaroused student not become explosive or violent). Containment requires the use of specific strategies designed to prevent the accidental release of destructive and/or negative energy from a student. Some ways to help contain a traumatized child are:
- Keep a schedule on the wall and give children advance notice of any changes in schedule –visual schedules are important because trauma-impacted students sometimes do not hear or retain auditory input.
- Warn children in advance about changes to their routines and/or transitions.
- Express clear expectations for academic and social behavior.
- Assign the student’s classroom seat close to the teacher or another safe person or peer.
- Watch for signs of sensory overload and provide appropriate sensory soothers when necessary.
- Keep a sensory box and a sensory room available.
- Validate the child’s feelings before moving to problem solving.
- Give the child the space and time that he or she needs to return to their “window of tolerance”. A child’s window of tolerance is the arousal level between hypoarousal and hyperarousal.
Traumatized children also need the acceptance of caring adults, thus it is important that school personnel:
- Gain insight into the impact of trauma on the child’s body and mind.
- Provide total acceptance of the feelings, emotions, themes, and body sensations a child is experiencing.
- If problematic behavior arises, understand that it is often not willful misconduct or disobedience, but a result of their trauma and conditioned responses to threat that were at one time adaptive (i.e. helped them to survive physically and psychologically).
- Look at the big picture—repairing the biopsychosocial world of a child who has experienced trauma is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Know their own sore spots, weaknesses, and/or limitations
- Work on their own tolerance level
- Never emotionally blackmail a student (e.g., making it appear that your love and acceptance of them is dependent on their behavior, action, and/or compliance).
- Treat the child and not his or her label(s)
Physical touch is important and can be healing for traumatized children. HOWEVER, physical touch can also be very frightening and triggering for some traumatized children, thus it must be used carefully and cautiously. Here are some pointers:
- Don’t touch a student from behind—make sure they can see you and what you are doing.
- Respect boundaries and be cognizant of how the child reacts to your touch to determine whether it was a positive or negative experience for the child and adjust accordingly.
- Provide non-physical affection—affection and affirmation can be conveyed to children in many different ways. Just because a child finds physical touch scary or threatening does not mean that they should not receive positive attention and affection from the adults in their life.
The Little Things That Make a Big Difference
Teachers are not therapists and are not expected to heal the wounds of their traumatized students; HOWEVER, teachers and school personnel can absolutely be key players in these students’ healing process and help them to feel safe, confident, competent, and successful. Teachers and school personnel can be tremendously helpful just by acknowledge the humanity of each and every one of their students:
- While some of their behavior may be frustrating, or even scary, it is important to understand that they are a by-product of their traumatic experiences and are simply the use of survival strategies that became reinforced because they were once adaptive. Thus, it is important not to be threatened by these behaviors and instead try to understand the root cause of these behaviors in order to more effectively manage them (e.g., does the child feel unsafe or threatened in the classroom?).
- Notice the little things your students do, make sure that students receive plenty of positive attention. Some children cannot accept too much praise, though, so try to find the level of acknowledgement that they can tolerate.
- It is important to respect your students even when they are disrespectful. Many traumatized children have not experienced unconditional and/or consistent love and caregiving. Teachers and other school personnel can be some of the first people in their life to show them that they are loved and worthy no matter what.
- Quick gestures of friendliness and random acts of kindness can go a long way in helping you develop a helpful and meaningful relationship with your students.
- Greet your students by name every day—it is important that they feel special and that you are sincerely happy to see them.
- Try to see the world through your students’ eyes. It is important to remember that what is important is not how you see yourself (e.g., “I am a safe, caring, and nice person) but rather how the student sees you. For example, a child who has been abused by an adult may see you as scary and threatening simply because you are an adult. Thus, you may need to make changes or efforts to help the student feel safe (e.g., get on your knees when you go up to talk to them so you are at the same height, talk in a quiet and soothing tone, etc.).
The Importance of Play
Play is extremely important for all children and can be especially helpful and therapeutic for traumatized children:
- Helps the child warm up to you.
- Helps the child to relax and see you as someone who could bring them some relief.
- Helps the child to feel safe and helps them bring down their defenses.
- Releases endorphins and stimulates positive feeling states.
- Play is the language of young children. It is often through play that children express and communicate their fears, emotions, and conflicts. Be observant, as you can learn much about your students through observing their play.
Some students, especially higher risk students, may require an individualized safety plan to help them feel safe, increase self-regulation, and be successful in school. The plan should:
- Include specific and individualized strategies that help meet the specific needs of the student, such as a pre-available pass to the sensory room or library.
- View the student’s problem behaviors as ineffective attempts to cope with traumatic symptoms.
- Focus not just on the student’s classroom behavior, but on their wellness. The plan should include strategies to make the child feel safe, valued, happy, etc.
- Be available to all of the adults, including the student’s parents, who work with the child so that they can all be supporters and advocates of the student.
- Include frequent large muscle movement, sensory, and relaxation exercises and strategies. Use of rocking chairs, spinning bikes, trampolines, swings, dancing, marching exercises, jumping exercises, deep breathing can all be very helpful.
- Include strategies to help the child with their relationships—both with their teachers their peers.
- Collaborate with parents, foster parents and other invested adults for input and suggestions about any aspect of the safety plan.
- Be continually evaluated and improved. It is important to monitor how the student is doing and make changes to the safety plan as needed.
Key components of a safety plan:
- What are the student’s triggers? (Note: some triggers are hard to detect because they have been generalized from the original trauma. For example, a door slamming may have preceded an instance of domestic violence that resulted in significant parental injury. A generalized trigger may now be a door opening suddenly.)
- What are the student’s signs of dysregulation?
- What does the child need from the school environment?
- What does the child need from his or her relationships?
Five Important Questions
If nothing else, when struggling with a traumatized student, stop, steady your breathing, and ask yourself the following five questions:
- How am I feeling?
- What does the young person feel, need, or want?
- How is the environment impacting (sensory assaults, triggers) the child?
- How can I depend on my relationship with the child in this moment?
- How do I best respond?
Micsak, J. (2013). Healing the inside child: Neurophysiological considerations with today’s students [Powerpoint Slides].
John Micsak is an expert on resiliency and trauma-informed care. For more information about John, his work, and additional resources check out:
Steele, W. (2008). Trauma’s impact on learning and behavior: A case for interventions in schools. Trauma and Loss: Research Interventions, 2, 1-37.
- Talk to your child’s principal about having the school conduct a sensory profile.
- Trauma Informed School Discipline Practices are explored here and here.
- Fantastic toolkit on building resiliency with nice handouts that illustrate the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences.
- Children’s Resilience Initiative in Walla Walla, Washington schools.
- For more information about special education services check out SAC’s special education resources
- National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Center for Collaborative Problem Solving