Childhood has always been a vulnerable developmental period. Throughout history, children have faced war, tragic accidents, famine, murder, sexual assault, epidemics, abuse and neglect. Even in our modern era of evidence-based research and practices, we have not come close to eradicating these damaging childhood experiences. Unfortunately, some children may encounter multiple events and repetitive stressful circumstances throughout their lives, increasing their susceptibility to psychosocial and developmental problems. Depending on the child, the degree of exposure to distressing events and other factors, trauma can be an experience that is not only unspeakable, but also mentally and physically exhausting, terrifying, and confusing for young people.
For centuries, children were expected to weather these ills and pull themselves up by the bootstraps as they approached adulthood. Many developed psychosocial and physical problems that followed them throughout their lifespans and often led to early death. We now know that trauma impacts brain areas crucial for learning, such as the pre-frontal cortex and the limbic or emotional system. Caring and well-trained adults can foster resilience in traumatized children by actually impacting how the learning brain responds when it is emotionally safe and able to focus. This is encouraging news for educators – it instills knowledge and hope that we can make a difference in outcomes for our students.
Even so, some of the most promising interventions and supports cannot be provided by educators who have themselves experienced trauma and remain unaware of its impact or are reluctant to seek assistance. With support, one can bolster skills in the five domains of social emotional learning (SEL): self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness (Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning, 2020). Despite trauma-laden pasts, adults can acquire skills to support students who have been impacted by trauma. Also important is the phenomenon known as secondary trauma, whereby educators “absorb” the pain of students who have not had their needs met by caring adults. Lastly, there is the dynamic of interactive trauma (Myklebust, 2020) that manifests when an untreated trauma-impacted adult unsuccessfully and often punitively intervenes with a student who has had traumatic experiences.
- Trauma is real.
- Trauma is prevalent – it is likely much more common than we care to admit.
- Trauma is toxic to the brain and affects development, relationships, and learning.
- Educators need to be prepared to support students who have experienced trauma, even if we don’t know exactly who they are.
- Trauma-informed teaching helps ALL students, not just those exposed to trauma.
- Children are resilient, and within positive learning environments they can grow, learn and succeed.
- Students exposed to trauma and toxic stress are more likely to struggle with academic success.
- In a classroom of 25 students (average classroom), 11 students will have at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE).