Understanding How Trauma Affects Students
By Bobbie Downs, M.A., M.A.T., Director, Educational Services Unit of the Burlington County Special Services School District and Doctor of Education candidate at Rowan University, and Retired Superintendent JoAnn B. Manning, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Rowan University
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
Social justice leaders in K-12 schools play an important role in creating a safe, equitable learning environment for all students—regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or developmental challenges. How? By raising awareness among teachers and other staff members about barriers that affect students’ ability to thrive in school. To reach this goal, one of their top priorities is identifying trauma that negatively impacts students’ academic performance, and helping the administration develop appropriate support for these children. Trauma is a multifaceted problem in schools: Many districts are unable to meet students’ needs, the greater health care system fails to provide adequate resources, there’s a stigma around mental health issues, and other organizations may marginalize children affected by trauma. But any teacher can bring a greater awareness of trauma (and how to deal with it) to their school. Here are some facts that all teachers and school leaders should know.
Childhood trauma is widespread. What do we mean when we say “trauma”? Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are stressful or traumatic events, including physical or emotional abuse, neglect, parental separation, poverty, and more, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And statistics speak to how widespread the problem is: One in four children in every classroom has been exposed to some form of childhood trauma, according to the Attachment and Trauma Network. Studies have shown that 83 percent of inner-city youth report experiencing one or more traumatic events; that urban males have higher levels of exposure to trauma; and that 26 percent of children in the United States will witness or experience an ACE before turning 4 years old.
Trauma affects learning in multiple ways. Students depend on healthy cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development to learn successfully. If trauma affects one or more of these developmental areas, it can dramatically hinder a child’s ability to learn. Some examples of the academic impacts of trauma on development:
Brain and language: Trauma affects a child’s neurobiological make-up in the limbic system—the same area of the brain that is tied to learning. Neurological research also shows that high levels of toxic stress caused by trauma rapidly change the chemistry and structure of a child’s brain, preventing them from accessing the critical thinking skills they need. And traumatic experiences at a very young age can have a long-term impact on a child’s ability to learn: Young children exposed to five or more ACEs in their first three years are 76 percent more likely to have one or more delays in language, emotional, or brain development, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Behavior issues: Children with multiple exposures to trauma are far more likely to be labeled with a learning disability or behavior problem. Certain forms of childhood trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety, social anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and oppositional defiance. Some research has also linked the concepts of fight, flight, and freeze to a child’s learning. While we often do not think of those reactions in relation to the classroom, educators must be aware of the connection. Students may be oppositional (fight), display hyper-reactivity (flight), be apathetic (freeze), or display an unhealthy combination of these. Or a student can be chronically overstimulated, which means they are constantly seeking stimuli due to overactive brain chemicals.
Trust issues: Some students who have experienced trauma are “too scared” to learn because they don’t trust their environment or teachers; others may have a hard time forming and maintaining relationships.
Taking action in your school is a smart step. Educational leaders can establish “trauma-informed” policies in their school that will help all students learn better by following these ABCD steps:
Accumulate knowledge about trauma and raise awareness in staff members—including teachers, administrators, coaches, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and custodians—about the prevalence and impact of trauma on students. Try to create a climate and learning environment in your school that fosters space for discussion about trauma and related social justice issues. Advocate for professional development opportunities (such as seminars and guest speakers) that explore the ramifications of trauma on individual students and the school community, as well as the importance of nurturing social-emotional learning skills.
Become an advocate for trauma sensitivity in your school. Because trauma is intrinsically linked to injustices, such as violence, racism, and poverty, becoming an advocate against trauma can help you become a social justice and transformational leader in other areas as well.
Create trauma-informed classrooms. Classrooms should be a place of safety and calm for children. Encourage your professional learning community to get involved in creating classroom environments that are sensitive to the needs of children impacted by trauma. One way to accomplish this is to identify and implement trauma-informed best practices and accommodations in classrooms.
Develop resilience in children who have experienced trauma. Social justice leaders, learning committee members, and other informed educators can teach students practical ways to address their trauma. And make sure that your school has a high-quality, evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum in place. Such measures help improve student behavior, boost their confidence, and put them on the right track for academic success.