10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs to Know

10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs to Know
Blog Author by WeAreTeachers Staff
With grief, sadness is obvious. With trauma, the symptoms can go largely unrecognized because it shows up looking like other problems: frustration, acting out, difficulty concentrating, following directions or working in a group. Often students are misdiagnosed with anxiety, behavior disorders or attention disorders, rather than understanding the trauma that’s driving those symptoms and reactions.

For children who have experienced trauma, learning can be a big struggle. But once trauma is identified as the root of the behavior, we can adapt our approach to help kids cope when they’re at school. Detroit-based clinical director of the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children, a program of the Starr Global Learning Network, Caelan Kuban Soma offers these tips for understanding kids who have been through trauma, plus strategies for helping them.

1. Kids who have experienced trauma aren’t trying to push your buttons.
If a child is having trouble with transitions or turning in a folder at the beginning of the day, remember that children may be distracted because of a situation at home that is causing them to worry. Instead of reprimanding children for being late or forgetting homework, be affirming and accommodating by establishing a visual cue or verbal reminder to help that child. “Switch your mind-set and remember the kid who has experienced trauma is not trying to push your buttons,” says Soma.


2. Kids who have been through trauma worry about what’s going to happen next.
A daily routine in the classroom can be calming, so try to provide structure and predictability whenever possible. Since words may not sink in for children who go through trauma, they need other sensory cues, says Soma. Besides explaining how the day will unfold, have signs or a storyboard that show which activity—math, reading, lunch, recess, etc.—the class will do when.

3. Even if the situation doesn’t seem that bad to you, it’s how the child feels that matters.
Try not to judge the trauma. As caring teachers, we may unintentionally project that a situation isn’t really that bad, but how the child feels about the stress is what matters most. “We have to remember it’s the perception of the child … the situation is something they have no control over, feeling that their life or safety is at risk,” says Soma. It may not even be just one event, but the culmination of chronic stress—for example, a child who lives in poverty may worry about the family being able to pay rent on time, keep their jobs or have enough food. Those ongoing stressors can cause trauma. “Anything that keeps our nervous system activated for longer than four to six weeks is defined as post-traumatic stress,” says Soma.

4. Trauma isn’t always associated with violence.
Trauma is often associated with violence, but kids also can suffer trauma from a variety of situations—like divorce, a move, or being overscheduled or bullied. “All kids, especially in this day and age, experience extreme stress from time to time,” says Soma. “It is more common than we think.”


5. You don’t need to know exactly what caused the trauma to be able to help.
Instead of focusing on the specifics of a traumatic situation, concentrate on the support you can give children who are suffering. “Stick with what you are seeing now—the hurt, the anger, the worry,” Soma says, rather than getting every detail of the child’s story. Privacy is a big issue in working with students suffering from trauma, and schools often have a confidentiality protocol that teachers follow. You don’t have to dig deep into the trauma to be able to effectively respond with empathy and flexibility.

6. Kids who experience trauma need to feel they’re good at something and can influence the world.
Find opportunities that allow kids to set and achieve goals, and they’ll feel a sense of mastery and control, suggests Soma. Assign them jobs in the classroom that they can do well or let them be a peer helper to someone else. “It is very empowering,” says Soma. “Set them up to succeed and keep that bar in the zone where you know they are able to accomplish it and move forward.” Rather than saying a student is good at math, find experiences to let him or her feel it. Because trauma is such a sensory experience, kids need more than encouragement—they need to feel their worth through concrete tasks.

7. There’s a direct connection between stress and learning.
When kids are stressed, it’s tough for them to learn. Create a safe, accepting environment in your classroom by letting children know you understand their situation and support them. “Kids who have experienced trauma have difficulty learning unless they feel safe and supported,” says Soma. “The more the teacher can do to make the child less anxious and have the child focus on the task at hand, the better the performance you are going to see out of that child. There is a direct connection between lowering stress and academic outcomes.”


8. Self-regulation can be a major challenge for students suffering from trauma.
Some kids with trauma are growing up with emotionally unavailable parents and haven’t learned to self-soothe, so they may develop distracting behaviors and have trouble staying focused for long periods. To help them cope, schedule regular brain breaks. Tell the class at the beginning of the day when there will be breaks—for free time, to play a game or to stretch. “If you build it in before the behavior gets out of whack, you set the child up for success,” says Soma. A child may be able to make it through a 20-minute block of work if it’s understood there will be a break to recharge before the next task.

9. It’s OK to ask kids point-blank what you can do to help them make it through the day.
For all students with trauma, you can ask them directly what you can do to help. They may ask to listen to music with headphones or put their head on their desk for a few minutes. Soma says, “We have to step back and ask them, ‘How can I help? Is there something I can do to make you feel even a little bit better?’”

10. You can support kids with trauma even when they’re outside your classroom.
Loop in the larger school. Share trauma-informed strategies with all staff, from bus drivers to parent volunteers to crossing guards. Remind everyone: “The child is not their behavior,” says Soma. “Typically there is something underneath that driving that to happen, so be sensitive. Ask yourself, ‘I wonder what’s going on with that kid?’ rather than saying, ‘What’swrong with the kid?’ That’s a huge shift in the way we view kids.”


WeAreTeachers: 10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs to Know. (n.d.). Retrieved February 28, 2016, from http://www.weareteachers.com/blogs/post/2016/02/24/10-things-about-childhood-trauma-every-teacher-needs-to-know

Communication as a Powerful Tool for Collaboration


Change is hard to accept and accomplish in education.  When seeking to share ideas, communication is a large factor. Many skills contribute to effective communication, such as clarity and completeness of information (Mind Tools, n.d.). In education, well organized communication helps share the need for change in a professional manner. According to the website Helpguide.org (n.d.), effective communication shares the message with all the emotional impact of the issue without creating conflict or destroying trust. Educators wanting support for social change must share their issue in a clear and complete manner. If the advocates cannot convey their message in a clear concise presentation, the audience may lose interest or misunderstand the need for the change. He or she must describe the issues, the need for change, and the potential methods for change in great detail to the concerned audience and stakeholders. The more detailed information the educator can share, the better informed the audience will be. Well-informed stakeholders can make choices that serve the great good of the community.

Communication is such an important component in policy making and gathering support.  One area of communication I feel I could improve is public speaking. I believe I am a well-spoken educator and can communicate my needs effectively, especially in a small group. After taking the Communication Anxiety Inventory on the Walden University site, I realized I experience some anxiety when speaking in large forums. I do, however, avoid large group speaking; if possible. I know that it is an issue I need to address, since I have to present at parent meetings. I will also have to be willing to share information about the benefits of collaboration, if I hope to attract a large group of participants. I think everyone has at least some fear of public speaking, but some are more receptive to it than others.  I would also like to improve my use of brochures in spreading the dates and agendas for collaboration meetings. I am confident in my writing abilities to convey the information; I just need more practice using different forms of presentation media.


Helpguide.org. (n.d.). Effective communication. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/effective_communication_skills.htm

Laureate Education (Producer). (2011). Communication anxiety [Interactive media]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu

Mind Tools. (n.d.). The 7 Cs of communication: A checklist for clear communication. Retrieved from http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCS_85.htm

Social Media Can Link Collaboration Partners

social media

Sharing information is a large part of an educator’s job. Educators are advocates for children, their families, and the local community. In the past, trying to spread a message required a great deal of time and effort, but now social media works to quickly share information.  According to June, Hong, and Sung-Min (2011) social media gives us access to a wide range of opinions and issues than traditional media and is often instantaneous.  This can be an asset for educators who want to share their policy ideas. Two of the social media outlets that can be used are Facebook and YouTube. Both of these sources allow the publisher or creator to upload information and moderate who reads it or watches the video presentations. The first social media source, Facebook allows the site moderator to invite interested participants and shape the group dynamics. He or she may also disenroll group members who no longer wish to participate or are unproductive to the cause. The moderator may upload pictures, videos, and information that would encourage partnerships and active collaboration. Due to the ease of access and immediate group feedback, members can share ideas quickly and coordinate more elaborate planning events.  This would be especially helpful in coordinating collaboration meetings and sharing new information as it is gathered.

The second social media source, YouTube allows the creator to upload videos that share information. The collaboration meetings can be recorded to share with team members who were unable to attend the meeting. It can also be used to invite addition educators or community partners who may want to help in collaboration efforts. The privacy settings can be adjusted to allow the creator to moderate comments and gauge the type of feedback offered. The viewers may subscribe to the creator and receive updates when new material is posted. The videos may be used to encourage future collaboration meetings or to share methodology used in cooperating educators’ classrooms. It is a great way for educators to model developmentally appropriate practice in the classroom setting.

Each form of social media has its own merits and challenges. Facebook is a popular and easily accessible method of sharing information. Most people are aware of how to log in to Facebook and can easily navigate the pages. People may search for groups that they wish to join and may request admittance. This allows the moderator an opportunity to accept or deny acceptance based on the group’s needs. One challenge of Facebook is that it is a continuous live feed, so a comment might be added that is not aligned with the group’s purpose before the moderator sees it.  Also, if the privacy setting is too restrictive, collaborative partners might not find the site thereby depriving the group of valuable community input. YouTube is easy to use and allows the viewer to see a recorded performance from the creator. The videos can be used for information, demonstration, or role playing. The videos can be edited for best content and comments can help the creator better fit the needs of the group. One challenge is that only one video presentation can be uploaded at a time. This could make the process time consuming for the creator to share all the inforiamtion he or she chooses. Also the creator must be vigilant in monitoring the comments for inappropriate content or misleading information.  June, Hong, and Sung-Min (2011) share that social media “allows messages to be distributed without screening, editing, or other forms of control” (p. 129).  With this in mind, I must be aware of the challenges to best use social media to meet my needs in the collaboration process.


June, P., Hong, C., & Sung-Min, P. (2011). Social media’s impact on policy making. SERI Quarterly4(4), 125-129.

Dynamics of Early Childhood Policies and Systems Personal Goals

smart goal setting concept

Early childhood educators must constantly learn to stay current in this fast paced world.  They must stay knowledgeable about the foundations, the global implications, and the cultural dynamics of the children, families, and communities they serve.  Each of these components is vital to becoming a twenty first century educator.  One component that I had not considered prior to my class placement is the dynamics of early childhood policies and systems.  Just the term “policy” makes me nervous.  I just want to become the best teacher I can become without all the pressures of politics, financing, or new regulations. While I would like to bury my head and hope the process goes smoothly, I know as an educational professional I need to become more active in all of those processes and understand their effects on me as an educator.

  When reading the course description for my current class, I recognized how important early childhood policy and knowledge can be for everyone.  Early educators know that early development and learning affect children throughout school careers and into adulthood.  To better prepare to become a more proactive educator, I have established three goals for myself this semester.  The first is to become more comfortable and knowledgeable about current polices and how they affect me.  The second is to research the systems currently in place at my school and learn more about them.  The third is to examine the policies at the newly established state website for young children and families.

The first goal will require me to step into a more active role.  I will have to take time to read and educate myself on the policies of my state, community, and school.  I am often passive about learning new policies and how they affect me in the classroom.  The second goal relates to my first in that I will be learning about the policies and systems for my school and state.  The difference for me is in how I approach the challenge.  The first goal requires me to step outside my comfort zone for a personal accomplishment.  The second goal requires me to actively examine the policy and apply it to my professional knowledge.  The final goal is to examine the Tennessee Children’s Cabinet website.  I was given some information last summer about the website and how it will help families.  I want to examine the content in-depth to become an advocate for the families at my school.  I need to be a better resource for the families I serve and I believe this website is a great place to start. I know the children in my classroom need better access to health care and their parents need to know where to seek help.  I hope to gain knowledge about resources to help students and their families in my classroom.


Final Thought about the Influences of Family, Culture, and Society in Early Childhood



When I began coursework in EDUC – 7853 -Influences of Family, Culture, and Society in Early Childhood, I expected to learn about family roles and some ways to incorporate families into schools.  The first few weeks while reading the Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I realized that this course encompassed a much broader topic than I had ever experienced.  I never considered how a family’s beliefs could endanger their child’s health, especially when it is in opposition to cultural norms. The main idea that I encountered was diversity and how comprehensive this term can be.  The Walt Disney Company has this quote “You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you.  But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.”  – Pocahontas”   What an awesome idea to look at our differences and build education around them.  What a wonderful world where no one is excluded and everyone is a part of the world family.  Making this happen would change education and make learning a priority for all children.

I realized early into the course that I had some biases that needed to be addressed to make my classroom a better learning environment.  I realized that I needed more culturally diverse materials and resources to better serve the children in my classroom.  Most teachers function in a small world of knowledge and resources. I realized that I was not thinking globally about the diversity of families and their cultural belief systems.  This class helped me see how diverse family dynamics can be even in a small school system.  I learned a new appreciation for families who are experiencing difficulty due to their lack of language skills, their child’s sexual orientation, or their financial situation. The four goals of Anti-Bias education, presented in Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves (Derman-Sparks and Edwards, 2010), helped me see how many classrooms are failing families and children. It made me more aware of my attitudes and expectations that affect young children.

The course major project caused me to reflect on ways to assist families in the classroom and how to seek community resources. My topic of toxic stress lead me on a journey that I did not expect. The annotated bibliographies helped me explore the topic in great detail. The interviews and key resources proved to be the most beneficial in examining the trauma of young children and their families. The research to find articles of resiliency also helped me see how many ways that educators can assist families. Even when a family’s problems are too large for a teacher to assist, the articles of resiliency help me see other agencies and resources that help families cope with their stressors. Seeing community and national organizations that work to help families was beneficial for me and will help me assist families in my school and community.

I enjoyed the lively dialogues in the discussion boards. Each person added his or her own family’s background and experiences. Viewing classrooms from around the country helped me feel part of a larger body of educators. Some stories were those of triumph, while others were more heart wrenching. I like to know that I am part of a group of people who love children and their families enough to go the extra mile for them. The dedication to families with young children is evident in the stories each person shared this semester. I look forward to sharing more time with other educators on this journey to change the world, one classroom at a time.

Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Fadiman, A. (2012). The spirit catches you and you fall down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and G

Interviewing for a Major Project


Interviewing people to seek knowledge is an intimate way to gain knowledge.  Digging into other people’s memories and experiences, allows you to experience the event through someone else’s eyes.  You can feel the emotions as each detail is shared.  One challenge to interviewing for me was constructing the questions.  The questions should help the interviewee focus, but not lead their answers.  You want the information to be a direct reflection of their experiences and feelings.  I wanted to make sure I covered a broad base, but I did not want to wander too far from my theme.  I also wanted to make sure I gathered enough contextual information about the interviewee to demonstrate their knowledge.  The questions were also part of the successful interviewing process.  I emailed the questions to the interviewees prior to my call or visit.  This planning allowed them to write out their answer and email them back to me.  I was able to reflect on their reply and form other questions that were not covered by my initial questions.  The interviews provided me a more positive outlook about how families affected by stress can recover.  Interviewing people about toxic stress can be sad and discouraging.  It can also be encouraging and enlightening.  Discussing how detrimental stress can be on family, especially young children, is hard to hear.  One of my interviewees shared how she was able to provide support for a family after the loss of a parent.  She was able to use the resources from her counseling office and the Child Saving Institute.  She found child care for the children so the mother was able to look for employment outside of the home.  The mother found a good job that had a flexible schedule, so she could stay involved in her children’s activities.  The counseling process helped the children gain a better understanding of their feelings and appropriate ways to express these feelings.  While reading all the ways toxic stress affects young children, I found myself focusing on the negative.  My interviewees gave me many examples of how children can overcome traumatic events and build a bright future.  My project is helping me understand ways to assist families through community resources, books, classroom resources, and other family supports.  The more articles I read, the deeper my understanding of toxic stress grows.  The research not only shows the damage caused, but also the resilience of young children and families with appropriate support.  One area I would like more feedback about, is establishing a family peer support system.  We all learn from our own experiences and many families have experienced extreme stress and overcome.  For example, in my community, many families have faced job loss due to factory closings.  I think these families could be a support for future families in this type of situations.  I wonder how such a group could be developed in a school setting to support families who are still struggling with extreme stress or hardships.  Could playgroups be developed to allow parents to collaborate?  Could older children talk with younger children to help validate their feelings?  Could schools provide meeting places for such activities?

Toxic Stress

sad boy

Early childhood professionals face many challenges working with families and children.  One of the challenges I have recently become interested in exploring is the effects of exposure to stress and trauma on young children over time.  This type of stress is often labeled as toxic stress. Toxic stress is produced when a child is exposed to “strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support” (“Toxic stress: The,” 2013).  According to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2005), this prolonged stress can disrupt the brain development and can cause cognitive impairment which may last into adulthood (p.1). I was especially interested in researching this topic due to my work with at-risk children. I see many children who live in impoverished homes, which often have dysfunctional living arrangements. I also became interested in this topic due to a recent experience with loss of income in my home. I realized how closely many families live to economic distress. I am fortunate to have many support systems in place which allowed my family to suffer much less stress than we could have. It opened my eyes to how damaging stress is to a person’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I saw how my children were adversely affected by the stress within our home. I hope to learn more about how to help children deal with continuous stress in their lives. I want to be a resource for young children and their families to help build more well-adjusted children. I am concerned about how to best address making changes to families within my school. How can I best address situations of abuse or neglect without offending the families I desire to help? How can I best assist families in the midst of financial distress without enabling codependence of services?  I also struggle with how to find resources in such a small community and maintain complete confidentiality. I hope to answer these questions and begin building better support of families in my community.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2005).  Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper No. 3. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu

Toxic stress: The facts. (2013). Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/topics/science_of_early_childhood/toxic_stress_response/

What I Learned…


Education is always changing.  It moves from one philosophy to the next before anyone has time to adjust to the first.  Early childhood educators are facing such an exciting time, since young children and their learning have moved to the forefront.  Teachers find themselves grabbing ideas and implementing them, then starting all over again.  Each part of learning is important, and teachers are growing up  in the world of skepticism and educational despair.  In this process, many philosophies and ideas emerge as the best.  I like to reflect on what I think is best.  I am finishing some course work, and as always I  gained some clarity on ideas I already held.

pocohointasOne idea I can face to face with is that of diversity.  Every teacher tries to fit the needs of the children in their class and believe that is diversity.  It is developmentally appropriate but not diversity.  The Walt Disney Company has the quote “You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you.  But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.”  – Pocahontas”   What an awesome idea to look at our differences and build education around them.  What a wonderful world where no one is excluded and everyone is a part of the world family.  Making this happen would change education and make learning a priority for all children.

researchAnother idea is peer collaboration and support in research.  I have had the opportunity to collaborate with some    of the finest teachers at my school.  This experience had benefits, but in my course work I had an opportunity to have my research validated by my peers.  Having a strong network of educators and community resources allow you to view all parts of your project in a variety of ways.  Most teachers function in a small world of knowledge and resources.  Why not reach out to others to see a new way, a new idea, a new belief or a new thought process?  We teach children to think outside the box, but many teachers are trapped by their small community thinking. Would any other profession settle for only what is known in their parent of the world?  I think not!  They reach out to seek other research and professionals in their field so their clients are served to the best of their ability.  Time for teachers to step up and be professionals searching out best practice and appropriate methodology for young children.


The last idea is personal responsibility.  It is time I decided what I need to do to best serve my students.  Many questions came to mind: What can I do to make the educational community better?  How can I help the most children in my community and society in general?; What resources can I access and present to families to help them get their needs met? ; Am I the best teacher I can be, and what can I do to improve?  All of these questions are question we all must ask and answer for ourselves.  Everyone is different and my goals may be very different from yours.  I believe each educator is a tiny piece of the educational puzzle.  If I use my skills to the best of my abilities, and you do the same, then the big picture get much clearer.  Each teacher puts another piece into the puzzle.  The puzzle gets bigger and more inclusive allowing more children to access to the best education possible. The big picture is more important than the small pieces could ever be all alone.

More Early Childhood Blogs: