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Improving Outcomes for Victims of

Trauma: How Can Teachers Help?


IMPACT ON ACADEMICS

Educators play a key role in identifying


students who have been victims of trauma
because symptoms of trauma may appear in
the classroom as difficulties with peer
relations, academics and behavior.

WHAT IS TRAUMA?

Trauma can be defined as overwhelming


psychological demands placed upon the
child that result in a profound sense of
vulnerability or loss of control. The younger
the child is when s/he experiences trauma,
the more frequent it is experienced and the
longer the trauma lasts, the more severe the
negative consequences will be for the child.
Repeated exposure to any of the following
can result in complex trauma:

Physical abuse
Neglect
Emotional/verbal abuse
Domestic violence (victim or witness)
Chronic sexual abuse
Caregiver mental illness
Caregiver drug abuse
Incarcerated family member15

Because traumatic experiences in early


childhood threaten a childs safety, they can
have long-lasting negative impacts on the
child. Some of childrens most basic needs
include feeling safe and secure4 and when
these needs are threatened, children struggle
to learn and may exhibit behavior problems.

After children experience trauma they


develop symptoms that are likely to
interfere with their academic success. Some
of these symptoms include:

Anxiety
Fear
Avoidance
Depression
Withdrawal
Difficulty with concentration
Difficulty with motivation5

A childs brain physically changes after


trauma, causing him/her to struggle with
regulation of behavior, attention and
emotion5. His/her energy is spent on
suppressing or reliving a traumatic
experience and the fear of it reoccurring.
These children are unable to access the part
of the brain they need to in order to learn5.

IMPACT ON BEHAVIOR

When children experience trauma they may


display behavior problems in the classroom.
Some of these behaviors include:

Aggression
Inappropriate social interactions
Refusal of help
Breaking classroom rules
Falling asleep in class
Impulsivity
Hyperactivity
Inattention

These behaviors may be interpreted as


defiance but in the traumatized child are the
result of mistrust, anxiety and fear15. These
children often perceive social interactions as
threatening even when they are not.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

As educators, we can act as a source of support for


traumatized youth. We can provide a safe
environment for children to learn that the world
can be a safe place. By building positive
relationships with children who have experienced
trauma, we can improve their chances of academic
success. Helpful strategies include:

Demonstrate empathy and consistency


Encourage self-discipline in students
Develop and maintain supportive
relationships with students
Positively reinforce desired behaviors
Show interest in students lives
Engage in one-on-one interactions with
students and learn about their goals and
aspirations
Maintain a predictable routine by adhering to
classroom schedule and talking about new
people and places in advance
Post a classroom schedule at students eye
level
Incorporate cooperative learning tasks into
lessons so students feel a sense of
belongingness
Teach students about feelings and emotions
through age-appropriate books and lessons
Foster positive peer relationships by including
social skills training as part of the curriculum
Make group work more prevalent in the
classroom
Provide opportunities for and models of
positive social interactions
Teach conflict resolution
Provide a safe space to reset or calm down
Promote a positive and supportive
environment in your classroom
Frequently discuss rules and why they are
important
Avoid threats, intimidation and battles for
control
Present information multiple ways
Provide step-by-step instructions to avoid
overwhelming students
Provide concrete examples and visual cues to
keep students engaged

Most importantly, remember that often these kids


are fighting to live, as opposed to failing to
thrive (Wright, 2014).

References
Bell, H., Limberg, D., & Robinson, E. I. (2013). Recognizing trauma in
the classroom: A practical guide for educators. Childhood Education,
89(3), 139-145.
2Chapman, R. L., Buckley, L., Sheehan, M., & Shochet, I. (2013). Schoolbased programs for increasing connectedness and reducing risk
behavior: A systematic review. Educational Psychology Review, 25(1), 95114.
3Chhuon, V., & Wallace, T. L. (2014). Creating connectedness through
being known fulfilling the need to belong in US high schools. Youth &
Society, 46(3), 379-401.
4Ciccarelli, S., & Meyer, G. (2006). Psychology (1st ed., p. 343). Upper
Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.
5Duplechain, R., Reigner, R., & Packard, A. (2008). Striking differences:
The impact of moderate and high trauma on reading achievement.
Reading Psychology, 29(2), 117-136.
6Ford, J. (2002). Traumatic victimization in childhood and persistent
problems with oppositional-defiance. Journal of Aggression,
Maltreatment & Trauma, 6(1), 25-58.
7Goodenow, C. (1993). The psychological sense of school membership
among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates.
Psychology in the Schools, 30(1), 79-90.
8Goodman, R. D., Miller, M. D., & West-Olatunji, C. A. (2012).
Traumatic stress, socioeconomic status, and academic achievement
among primary school students. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research,
Practice, and Policy, 4(3), 252-259. doi:10.1037/a0024912
9McNeely, C. A., Nonnemaker, J. M., & Blum, R. W. (2002). Promoting
school connectedness: Evidence from the national longitudinal study of
adolescent health. Journal of School Health, 72(4), 138-146.
10Merritt, D. H., & Snyder, S. M. (2015). Correlates of optimal behavior
among child welfare-involved children: Perceived school peer
connectedness, activity participation, social skills, and peer affiliation.
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85(5), 483.
11Osterman, K. F. (2000). Students' need for belonging in the school
community. Review of Educational Research, 70(3), 323-367.
12 Reddam, MS, LMFT, M. (2014). Through the lens of trauma: How
understanding leads to healing [PowerPoint Slides].
13Seifert, K. (2003). Childhood trauma: Its relationship to behavioral
and psychiatric disorders. Forensic Examiner, 12(9/10), 27-33.
14Spilsbury, J., Belliston, L., Drotar, D., Drinkard, A., Kretschmar, J.,
Creeden, R., & Friedman, S. (2007). Clinically significant trauma
symptoms and behavioral problems in a community-based sample of
children exposed to domestic violence. Journal of Family Violence, 22(6),
487-499. doi:10.1007/s10896-007-9113-z
15Wright, T. (2014). Too scared to learn. YC: Young Children, 69(5), 88.
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RESOURCES:

DifficultChild.com
PBISworld.com
Too Scared to Learn by Travis Wright
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other
Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook-What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us
About Loss, Love, and Healing by Dr. Bruce
Perry and Maia Szalavitz
TED.com How Childhood Trauma Affects
Health Across a Lifetime by Nadine Burke
Harris
Emily Adams & Lizbeth Ramirez
California State University, Chico
School Psychology, PPS 2016