How Teachers Can Help Students Who’ve Survived Trauma

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For children who have experienced trauma, learning can be a struggle. Trauma can cause physiological symptoms like stomachaches, headaches, and poor sleep habits. The impacts of a traumatic experience can affect a child well after the event into adulthood.[1] A child may feel hopeless, helpless, out of control and experience feelings of anxiety that won’t stop. The classroom can be a safe haven or an additional point of stress. This begs the question, how can educators help these students?

What is Trauma?
Trauma is damage that results from a severely distressing event that exceeds one’s ability to cope and integrate the emotions involved in that event.[2]  Trauma may not involve violence; kids can suffer significant stress from a variety of difficult situations including divorce, transitions and mobility, drug or alcohol use in the home, or bullying. It also may not be one event triggering the feelings, but the culmination of chronic stress.[3]

Childhood trauma can negatively affect the way the brain develops, leading to stress, anxiety or difficulty in controlling emotions. Learning about the impacts of trauma can help educators understand a child’s underlying difficulties with learning, behavior and relationships. Students can often be misdiagnosed with anxiety, behavior disorders or attention disorders, rather than understanding the trauma that’s driving those reactions. Symptoms can go unrecognized because they can manifest like frustration and acting out or difficulty concentrating, following directions and working in a group. But once trauma is identified as the root cause, educators can help kids cope with the aftermath.

In addition to behavioral issues, trauma can disturb a student’s development of the foundations necessary for learning from the development of language and communication skills to interfering with the ability to organize and remember new information.[4]

Adverse Childhood Experiences
Early traumatic experiences are an important public health issue. Research suggests that approximately 25% of American children will experience at least one traumatic event by the age of 16.[5] The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse, trauma and neglect and later-life health and well-being. The original ACE Study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997 with more than 17,000 HMO members from Southern California completing confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviors.[6]

It found that as the number of ACEs increased, so did the risk of alcoholism, depression, COPD, ischemic heart disease, liver disease, suicide attempts, adolescent pregnancy, poor academic achievement and financial stress. When a child has more than four ACEs, the impact lasts for decades. It can be seen not only in mental health but in the incidence of chronic diseases and even cancer.[7]  Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, also have a tremendous impact on future violence, both as victim and perpetrator, and lifelong health and opportunity.[8]

While the young brain is impressionable to trauma, it can also be resilient. There’s interesting research showing that the brain is able, under certain conditions, to rewire itself. This neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to grow, change and form new connections into adulthood – may help to ameliorate the behavioral and emotional problems caused by the original damage.[9]

What Can Teachers Do to Help?
Create a Safe Space: Let children know you recognize they are struggling and are there to support them through it.
Provide Routine: A daily routine in the classroom can be reassuring, so try to provide structure and predictability whenever possible.
Give Choices: When stress is at the center of a child’s life, having some control over the projects they work on, aspects of them or the order in which they are done may help. Knowing what’s coming next makes a big difference.
Be There to Listen: Teachers don’t have to solve a child’s problem in order to help. Sometimes simply listening can make all the difference to a child.
Ask Questions: Checking in with your student directly and asking what they need to cope may get you the guidance you need. When it comes to larger issues, a school survey can also help discover what the faculty and administration can do to make a difference
Work with Counselors, Social Workers and School Psychologists: Mental health professionals can facilitate the creation of timely, effective, and culturally-responsive mental and behavioral health services.
Recess and Downtime: A child may be better able to make it through a block of work knowing there will be a break afterward to rest and recharge.
Find a Toolkit: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has created a Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators.
Create a Trauma-Sensitive School Environment. Since 2005, schools across the US have adopted some type of trauma-sensitive approach. Trauma-sensitive schools promote[10]:

  • feelings of physical, social, and emotional safety in students
  • a shared understanding among staff about the impact of trauma and its adversity on students
  • positive and culturally responsive discipline policies and practices
  • access to comprehensive school mental and behavioral health service
  • effective community collaboration.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides opportunities to increase access to school mental and behavioral health service and expands local power over decision-making to help address specific issues, including trauma.[11]

Pride Surveys offers opportunities for tweens and teens to share their thoughts on violent or threatening behavior, bullying and other issues that impact student engagement through our Learning Environment Survey as well as our Social, Emotional and Bullying Behavior Survey. The benefit of choosing a survey company is that we take the guesswork out of the surveying process to ask the difficult questions. Browse the different types of scalable student surveys we offer and find out why Pride Surveys is the best choice to help you survey your school. Questions? Give us a call at 800-279-6361 or fill out our quick online contact form.



[1] “5 Ways Teachers Can Help Kids Who Have Experienced Trauma.” Retrieved 10 January, 2018 at

[2] “Emotional and Physical Trauma: Healing from Trauma and Moving On.” Retrieved on 12 January, 2018 at

[3] “10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs to Know.” Retrieved 12 January, 2018 at

[4] “Helping Traumatized Children Learn.” Retrieved 12 December, 2018 at

[5] “Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators.” Retrieved 12 January, 2018 at

[6] “About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study.” Retrieved 10 January, 2018 at

[7] “How Schools Use Brain Science to Help Traumatized Kids Heal and Learn.” Retrieved 10 January, 2018 at

[8] “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).” Retrieved 12 January, 2018 at

[9] “Neuroplasticity and Rewiring the Brain.” Retrieved 12 January, 2018 at

[10] “Trauma-Sensitive Schools.” Retrieved 12 December, 2018 at

[11] “Trauma-Sensitive Schools.” Retrieved 12 December, 2018 at

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