The pervasiveness of childhood trauma demonstrates the importance of trauma-informed teaching. Nearly half of all U.S. children have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience with the potential to cause trauma, according to the Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative.
Childhood trauma occurs when a young person experiences events that threaten their sense of safety. Such experiences negatively affect behavioral development and have been linked to poor health outcomes later in life.
Trauma also impedes learning. Educators practice trauma-informed teaching when they gain awareness of the negative effects of trauma on behavior and learning and apply teaching strategies that mitigate those effects.
Causes of Childhood Trauma
The definition of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) established by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) includes 10 types of experiences grouped into three categories:
- Abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual)
- Household challenges (violent treatment of the mother, substance abuse in the household, mental illness in the household, parental separation or divorce, or an incarcerated household member)
- Neglect (emotional and physical)
The CDC’s ACE categorizations, though broad, do not account for all of the causes of childhood trauma. Additional threats to children’s sense of safety and well-being include community and school violence, national disasters and terrorism, refugee status or war experiences, military family-related stressors (e.g., separation due to deployment, parental loss, or injury), and bullying.
Marginalization, racism, and discrimination can also cause childhood trauma. Being made to feel inferior through overt mistreatment, as well as the denial of equal opportunity resulting from more subtle stereotyping and bias, can engender debilitating levels of anger, frustration, self-doubt, depression, fear, and other emotions with damaging emotional, psychological, and physical effects.
The Impact of Childhood Trauma
A pivotal study conducted by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente helped establish that traumatic events during childhood (0-17 years) are extremely common, and their effects are long lasting:
- As many as 1 in 6 adults in the U.S. experienced four or more types of ACEs.
- Five of the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. are associated with ACEs.
- Exposure to ACEs is associated with higher risk of health problems across a person’s lifespan.
- ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance abuse in adulthood.
Students who have experienced traumatic experiences have difficulty regulating their emotions and actions. They may also struggle with negative thoughts, social interactions, and have trouble trusting others. These behavioral challenges make it difficult to function and learn in a classroom environment.
Furthermore, childhood traumatic stress has been linked to higher rates of suspensions and expulsions, increased involvement with child welfare and criminal justice systems, and long-term physical health problems, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Students who have suffered trauma bear the greatest burden of its impact, but their teachers and classmates also feel its effects. The extreme and seemingly unprovoked behavior that traumatized students can exhibit can put teachers on edge. Additionally, teachers struggling to interact constructively with traumatized students may experience feelings of failure, excessive concern, or a sense of being overwhelmed.
When traumatized students engage in disruptive behavior, it can be frustrating for teachers and classmates alike. Adopting strategies for helping students who have experienced trauma benefits everyone in the classroom.
The Role of Teachers
Teachers are uniquely positioned to recognize signs of trauma in students, and they can use trauma-informed teaching methods to help those students manage learning challenges and perform better in school.
Recognizing the Signs
Teachers should be aware of certain behaviors that indicate a student may have experienced trauma. One of the most telling signs is sudden emotional outbursts or rapid swings from one emotion to another. Young people who have experienced trauma also commonly have difficulty regulating their emotions and may display various acting-out behaviors. Teachers should also be mindful of more general traumatic stress symptoms:
- Aggressive or impulsive behavior
- Anxiousness or fearfulness
- Avoidance behaviors
- Difficulty concentrating
- Expressions of guilt or shame
- Significant weight loss
- Signs of eating disorders or self-harming behaviors
- Signs of shutting down emotionally
- Signs of sleeplessness
Some of the signs of trauma are specific to age groups. For example, young students who have experienced trauma may have separation anxiety related to their parents or caregivers, while older students may have problems with drug or alcohol abuse.
Tips for Trauma-Informed Teaching
Trauma-informed teaching recognizes the effects of trauma on students and applies teaching strategies that help both the teacher and the student manage stress, resolve conflict, and control their emotions and behaviors.
By practicing empathy and creating safe learning environments, teachers can better connect with traumatized students and help them engage with classwork. Several strategies can help teachers foster more encouraging and constructive environments:
1. Provide consistency, predictability, and structure. Unexpected changes can be a trigger for students who lack stability at home. Teachers can make them feel more comfortable by clearly communicating plans and schedules and informing students at the beginning of class about schedule changes to allow them time to process.
2. Build relationships and foster trust with students. Teachers can build relationships by regularly engaging students in conversations that are not about school. This demonstrates a personal interest and can be a particularly powerful exercise following an episode of poor behavior, because it demonstrates that the interest isn’t conditional. Ignoring poor behavior or withholding attention can have a poor effect on traumatized students who may have suffered neglect.
3. Focus on social-emotional education. Skills for understanding and managing emotions are particularly crucial for teachers when interacting with students who have experienced trauma. Demonstrating empathy, setting achievable goals, and teaching coping skills that help traumatized students manage their emotions and make responsible decisions can foster more constructive classroom relationships.
4. Opt for restorative practices instead of punitive discipline. Students who have experienced trauma often have problematic relationships with parents or other authority figures, and they commonly live in unstable environments that diminish their sense of control. For these reasons, they often react poorly to punitive measures, and even authoritative direction can result in a power struggle. Conveying respect and focusing on repairing harm can yield better results.
5. Take care of your own mental health. Working with traumatized students is just one of the many challenges that teachers face on a daily basis, but it can take a particularly damaging toll. Teachers who are regularly exposed to student trauma can experience secondary trauma or compassion fatigue, causing them to experience their own emotional distress and related symptoms.
Understanding the effects of childhood trauma allows teachers to put students’ reactions into context and apply more effective strategies. The knowledge and empathy at the heart of trauma-informed teaching creates better learning environments for everyone.
Creating Better Learning Environments
Educators interested in learning about trauma-informed teaching and other progressive pedagogies should consider Mills College’s School of Education. The school’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership builds collaborative leadership skills and prepares students to implement organizational change. Grounded in knowledge of teaching and learning, the program is designed for active teachers who want to advance their careers and play a greater role in driving change in education.