“Trauma” has become a buzzword of sorts. You might have heard the term “trauma-informed education” or heard someone say that they feel “triggered”. These words and phrases have gained popularity, with some even suggesting that “trauma” was the mental health buzzword of 2018. The American Psychological Association defines trauma as, “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster”. It is important to note, though, that not all adversity is traumatizing for children. In fact, some level of adversity is necessary for children to grow (e.g., learning to ride a bike without training wheels).
What are ACEs?
Certain experiences or contexts are especially likely to cause trauma; these are sometimes referred to as “ACEs”. ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences, occur before 18 years of age and include abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. ACEs is derived from a landmark study, the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which determined that early life trauma leads to chronic physical and mental health, financial, and social outcomes as an adult. The original 10 ACEs (see Figure 1) were later expanded (see Figure 2) to include other household, community (e.g., racism, poverty), and climate (e.g., earthquakes) events that may also be traumatizing for children. These early adverse experiences literally alter a child’s brain in ways that alter their stress response and cognitive capabilities. Unfortunately, the impact of ACEs are exponential; as the number of ACEs increases, the risk for poor outcomes, including early death, increases.
Why is it important for educators to be aware of ACEs?
It is important for educators to be aware of ACEs because the impact of traumatizing events shows up in the classroom. And given that one in four children have experienced an ACE before their 5th birthday, the chances of having at least one child with a trauma background in the classroom is high. Moreover, understanding how trauma manifests in the classroom as a result of early ACEs allows teachers to interpret a student’s behavior through a different lens. When teachers understand how trauma can manifest in school, the potential to misdiagnose children as having learning or behavior disorders is also lessened. It is perhaps especially important to understand the impact of trauma on youth under the present circumstances of a global pandemic. It is likely that some youth will experience COVID-19 as a traumatizing event (i.e., an ACE). For instance, children who are worrying about a sick family member or those whose household income was disrupted may have a trauma response when returning to the classroom. It is essential that teachers be aware of the impact of trauma on learning in order to best serve all children.
How does trauma get under our skin?
Researchers are still attempting to understand how exactly early life adversity influences development. Although the exact mechanisms are still being examined, researchers know that early life adversity can have lasting impacts on multiple domains of development because it changes the brain’s architecture. One promising avenue for understanding how trauma affects lifelong development is stress. Similar to adversity, not all stress is harmful. Children can tolerate even very intense stressors with the help of a caring, stable, and supportive adult relationship. When, however, stress is intense, chronic, and/or recurring, and there is no caring adult to help buffer the impact, stress can become toxic. The stress system is activated each time there is a stressor. Normally, this system can be down-regulated when the threat has subsided. When this system is excessively activated or in a prolonged state of activation, however, we say that this stress becomes toxic because it disrupts each of the body’s major systems (e.g., immune). Therefore, early life adversity can cause a trauma response in children through the prolonged and excessive activation of the stress response system.
How does trauma manifest in the classroom?
Trauma responses vary by child, age, ethnicity/culture, and prior history of trauma, among other factors. Some common indicators of trauma for school-age children include difficulty paying attention, aggression, frequent head- or stomach-aches, and developmental regression (displaying behaviors from a younger age). Traumatized children often have trouble controlling strong emotions and are hyper-vigilant to threats. This means that children are constantly surveilling the environment for threats to their safety, seeing “negative where we see neutral”.
What can educators do?
A traumatized child might first come to the attention of a teacher through disruptive or disengaged classroom behavior. To be effective, educators must separate the child from their behavior, shifting from seeing a “bad child” to seeing a “hurt child”. This shifting mindset will allow educators to put the behavior in context. The same behaviors a child might have relied upon to survive and cope (e.g., avoidance) may now be detrimental to their wellbeing. Just as muscles get stronger from use, these coping mechanisms are well-developed in traumatized children and thus will need to be retrained. Finally, research indicates that children who have been traumatized show less well-developed Executive Function skills. These skills are important for critical thinking, problem-solving, and behavioral control; the very skills that are essential for school and life success. Educators can help children with trauma backgrounds develop these essential skills by allowing children the opportunities to practice these skills and allowing them to feel safe and secure in the classroom.
To learn more about Trauma and what educators can do to best support children in classrooms, see Reflection Sciences’ professional development course, The Role of Trauma in the Development of Executive Function.