5 Things Every Educator Should Know When Teaching Children with Trauma

Nov 5, 2019 | Abuse & Children, Abuse & Teens

By Robbie McCamman, M.Ed., Ph.D.

As an educator of 34 years, I have seen remarkable changes in education. Some are extraordinary – such as the evolution of technology – which can bring the world into the classroom, others have moved our society into an expansive unknown – such as the increasing demand for teachers to do far more than just teach.  Whether it is by way of budget cuts, the necessity of dual incomes in families, or the overall needs of the children, in many situations educators are now expected to be the nurse, counselor, resource provider, and teacher in our schools.  As research continues to emerge on the needs of children with trauma, there is a growing urgency for educators to learn more about the effects of trauma on children and the strategies to employ in the classroom. This is becoming higher and higher priority as we see more and more traumatized children with behaviors that push the limits of safety within a classroom. Below are five of the most notable things all teachers should know when they are working with children who are carrying the burden of trauma in their lives. 

1)  Trauma changes the development of a child’s brain.

Most educators are well versed in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, but what many don’t know is that without the proper nurturing and supportive environment during formative years, a child’s brain development can get “stuck” in the basic level of need.  Some research compares the brain to two levels of a house, downstairs and upstairs, and contends that children with trauma in their past remain in the downstairs area of the brain. This is where basic body function, reactivity, and fight/flight/freeze responses exist.  Whether consciously or not, children who are stuck in the downstairs can hyper-focus on meeting their basic needs and display behaviors that are congruent with that focus. Without the support and safety that will allow a child the freedom to move into that upstairs level of the house, teachers will be fighting to connect with a student who is psychologically unable to grasp the material being presented to them.  

2)  Trauma affects learning and behavior.

According to an article published by the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, “recent neurobiological, epigenetics, and psychological studies have shown that traumatic experiences in childhood can diminish concentration, memory, and the organizational and language abilities children need to succeed in school.” For many children with trauma backgrounds, they can have trouble forming relationships, have difficulties with appropriate school behavior, and have academic challenges.  In fact, many of these behaviors have been misdiagnosed as learning disabilities and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In a 2016 publication, “Is it ADHD or Child Traumatic Stress?” by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, there is such an overlap in the behaviors exhibited by ADHD children and children with traumatic stress that they are often medicated for ADHD instead of treated for the other. Trauma-informed schools have been able to recognize the learning and behavior challenges presented by students with trauma and have begun to address them accordingly. Since the educational movement regarding childhood trauma is still gaining traction, however, many children continue to be misdiagnosed and therefore are not getting the support they need. 

3)  The maladaptive behaviors a child with trauma presents are not directed at you.

It is so difficult as an educator to be dedicated to the intellectual growth and emotional well-being of all of your students. To have the one you work the hardest with throw a tantrum and call you names, or hurl classroom furniture at you, can be incredibly discouraging.  As much as it feels like you are not appreciated or valued, it is not about you. Let me repeat myself: it is not about you. The behavior displayed, in response to a situation that may not have set off other children, is because of the downstairs brain fight/flight/freeze response taking over. This is a way in which traumatized children protect themselves. It can be downright demoralizing to see children act out toward you in such degrading ways, but keep in mind that you are not the cause of their trauma. There is hope, and you just might become a lifeline on their road to recovery. 

4)  Take care of yourself.  You are no good to students if you are broken. 

Secondary traumatic stress, sometimes referred to as compassion fatigue, has typically been linked to caring professions such as nurses, child welfare workers, and first responders. In a recent article published in NEA Today, however, this diagnosis has been extended to teachers. According to statistics by the Center for Disease Control, more than half of the children in the United States have experienced some type of trauma. It stands to reason that as educators care for the children affected by trauma, it would have an impact on them as well. 

If you come into education with any trauma history of your own, it can also add to the stress of the profession. It is estimated that 60 – 80% of people who select caring professions have trauma in their backgrounds, so it is critical that the trauma stressors are recognized and addressed early on. Finding a way to most effectively deal with children with similar backgrounds who might trigger you is an imperative tool that you must have in your teaching toolkit. Being on the front lines with traumatized children day in and day out would have an incredible impact on anyone, please work hard to give yourself the grace and care you need in order to sustain such a calling.

5)  You can make a difference in the life of a traumatized child.

Luckily, as the effects of trauma on children are being recognized, and researchers and curriculum developers are finding systems and strategies for educators to use in the classroom.  Two strategies that have caught the attention of many are Collaborative Problem Solving, as presented in the TED Talk “Rethinking Challenging Kids-Where There’s a Skill There’s a Way,” with J. Stuart Ablon as well as “Preventative De-escalation Strategies based on the Acting Out Cycle,” credited to the work of Geoff Colvin and other researchers.  With Collaborative Problem Solving, the concept is simple – provide children who have had their power stripped away due to trauma an opportunity to be a part of the problem-solving process.  Spend time discussing their academic and behavioral needs with them, and together develop agreeable solutions.  With Preventative De-escalation Strategies, educators focus on the acting out cycle of the student, identifying the escalation point and developing strategies to circumvent that point.

Perhaps the easiest and most overlooked strategy is forming a bond with the trauma stressed student.  Increasing amounts of research indicate that the effects of trauma on a child’s brain can be overcome with a caring relationship and nurturing environment created by at least one safe adult.  A classroom teacher, a school counselor, or an administrator can create that environment and be THAT person for a child. There is hope, there is healing, there is a way for these children to break the bonds of trauma and move forward successfully in life. 

Thank you to all the educators across the world who have answered the call to care, support, and teach the next generation. Your work is not in vain, you have my support. 

For more information on each of these five areas, along with tips and tools for working with traumatized children, visit http://mendingthesoul.org/educator-registration/ and sign up for the online course designed for educators:  Educating the Vulnerable Child. Use the code “5Things” for a course discount of $25!


TED Talk: Rethinking Challenging Kids – Where There’s a Skill There’s a Way https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuoPZkFcLVs

NEA Today: ‘I Didn’t Know It Had a Name’:  Secondary Traumatic Stress and Educators https://neatoday.org/2019/10/18/secondary-traumatic-stress/

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network:  Is It ADHD or Child Traumatic Stress? A Guide for Clinicians https://www.nctsn.org/resources/it-adhd-or-child-traumatic-stress-guide-clinicians

Helping Traumatized Children Learn   https://traumasensitiveschools.org/trauma-and-learning/the-problem-impact/

Edutopia:  Supporting Students with Chronic Trauma  https://www.edutopia.org/article/supporting-students-chronic-trauma

Robbie McCamman is a retired educator who has served as a classroom teacher and elementary school principal.  Currently, she is an adjunct professor in the College of Education at Northern Arizona University. She holds several degrees in education including a doctorate degree from Arizona State University.  After retiring, Robbie found a new home with Mending the Soul and serves as the Caring for the Vulnerable Child Program Director where she can advocate for children who have been impacted by trauma.