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How Trauma Affects Kids in School

Caroline Miller from Child Mind Institute



Ongoing exposure to neglect, abuse, homelessness or violence causes learning and behavior problems in children. Signs of trauma and tips for helping kids who've been traumatized.

We tend to think of trauma as the result of a frightening and upsetting event. But many children experience trauma through ongoing exposure, throughout their early development, to abuse, neglect, homelessness, domestic violence or violence in their communities. And it’s clear that chronic trauma can cause serious problems with learning and behavior.


Trauma is particularly challenging for educators to address because kids often don’t express the distress they’re feeling in a way that’s easily recognizable — and they may mask their pain with behavior that’s aggressive or off-putting. As Nancy Rappaport, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who focuses on mental health issues in schools, puts it, “They are masters at making sure you do not see them bleed.”


Identifying the symptoms of trauma in the children can help educators understand these confusing behaviors. And it can help avoid misdiagnosis, as these symptoms can mimic other problems, including ADHD and other behavior disorders.

In brief, the obstacles to learning experienced by these children include:

  • Trouble forming relationships with teachers

  • Poor self-regulation

  • Negative thinking

  • Hypervigilance

  • Executive function challenges

Trauma and trouble forming bonds

Children who have been neglected or abused have problems forming relationships with teachers, a necessary first step in a successful classroom experience. They’ve learned to be wary of adults, even those who appear to be reliable, since they’ve been ignored or betrayed by those they have depended on.


“These kids don’t have the context to ask for help, notes Dr. Rappaport, a school consultant and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “They don’t have a model for an adult recognizing their needs and giving them what they need.”


Many of these children haven’t been able to develop secure attachments to the adults in their lives, adds Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist and head of the Trauma and Resilience Center at the Child Mind Institute. They need help to let other adults into their lives. “Kids who’ve never developed that early template that you can trust people, that you are lovable and that people will take care of you,” Dr. Howard explains, “need support to form that kind of relationship.”

One of the challenges in giving that support is that when kids misbehave, our schools often use disciplinary systems that involve withdrawing attention and support, rather than addressing their problems. Schools have very little patience for kids who provoke and push away adults who try to help them.


Instead of suspending children, Dr. Rappaport argues, schools need to work with them on changing their behavior. When a student is acting up in class, she explains, teachers need to recognize the powerful feelings they are expressing, if inappropriately.

Rather than jumping right into the behavior plan – deducting points or withdrawing privileges or suspending — Dr. Rappaport stresses the importance of acknowledging the emotion and trying to identify it. “I can see that you are REALLY angry that Andrew took the marker you wanted!” she suggests. “If you’re wrong about what the student is upset about, he’s likely to correct you.”

Acknowledging and naming an emotion helps children move towards expressing it in a more appropriate way. Communicating that you “get” him is the necessary first step, she explains, to helping a child learn to express himself in ways that don’t alienate and drive away people who can help him.


Poor self-regulation

Traumatized children often have trouble managing strong emotions. As babies and toddlers, children learn to calm and soothe themselves by being calmed and soothed by the adults in their lives, Dr. Howard notes. If they haven’t had that experience, because of neglect, “that lack of a soothing, secure attachment system contributes to their chronic dysregulation.”

In the classroom, teachers need to support and coach these children in ways to calm themselves and manage their emotions. “We need to be partners in managing their behavior,” Dr. Rappaport explains. “Co-regulation comes before self-regulation. We need to help them get the control they need to change the channel when they’re upset.” They need coaching and practice at de-escalating when they feel overwhelmed, she adds.

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