Every student enters a classroom with a history. Sometimes that history consists of the typical, if not uneventful, ups and downs of childhood. Other times, that history may include tragedy—many students experience sexual abuse, the loss of a parent, homelessness, and violence. Such tragedies can traumatize students, affecting their ability to perform well in school.
Today’s education leaders must recognize the prevalence of trauma and its impact on learning. With knowledge about how trauma affects children’s development, educators are better positioned to attend to the needs of all students.
How Prevalent Is Trauma Among Students?
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, a 1998 landmark study, transformed people’s understanding of just how common trauma is, spawning the development of trauma-informed approaches in disciplines ranging from medical care to education. In the ACE Study, 61% of adults reported having experienced at least one trauma during childhood, and almost 1 in 6 reported experiencing four or more traumas.
Trauma can have devastating consequences in people’s lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in addition to increasing children’s risk of developing a broad assortment of chronic diseases later in life, toxic traumatic stress can change the development of children’s brains and affect their attention levels, decision-making capacities, and learning abilities.
Educators can expect two-thirds of their students to have experienced one or more traumatic events by age 16. How those experiences manifest in student behavior or learning abilities can vary considerably according to age and personality. For example, elementary school students can experience anxiety and fear and struggle to concentrate, while middle school and high school students can experience depression, self-harm, and misuse alcohol or drugs.
A review of research between 1990 and 2015 found the following statistics regarding the prevalence of various traumatic events in school-age children:
- 13%-17% of girls and 3%-5% of boys had experienced sexual abuse.
- 69%-71% of students had experienced assault or physical abuse.
- 70% had witnessed violence.
- 18% had lost a loved one due to crime or vehicular homicide.
- 29% had experienced bullying.
- 22% had experienced disasters.
One consequence of these traumas is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The US Department of Veteran Affairs’ National Center for PTSD reports that 3%-15% of girls and 1%-6% of boys who experience trauma develop PTSD. These alarming percentages highlight the importance of trauma-informed teaching strategies to more effectively address the challenges students confront because of past and ongoing traumas.
Trauma’s Impact in the Classroom
The harm trauma inflicts on students’ lives often carries over into the classroom. Though many children show only some dysfunction as a result of their traumatic experiences, others exhibit significant learning impairments. Trauma-related symptoms can interrupt key areas of a student’s education, including relationships, behavior, and academic performance.
Trauma’s Impact on Student Relationships
Trauma can make it hard for children to form bonds. For example, students who have experienced neglect or abuse from adults might have difficulty building trust, or they may feel wary of asking for the help they need. However, forming positive relationships with teachers can play an important role in student success.
Students with trauma often need guidance and support in building trusting relationships with teachers and their classmates. Unfortunately, one obstacle to getting the guidance and support they need can be their behavior. When students misbehave, schools often discipline them in ways that isolate them or withdraw support. This approach can further hinder ACE-affected students from bonding with their teachers.
Trauma’s Impact on Student Behavior
Traumatic experiences affect students’ ability to regulate their emotions. In healthy environments, adults calm and soothe young children, which teaches them to calm and soothe themselves. However, children who have experienced neglect or abuse often do not receive such support and thereby don’t learn how to manage their emotions. The inability to manage emotions can lead to outbursts and other behavior problems in the classroom.
Students with traumatic histories may also experience higher levels of fear and anxiety, which can make it difficult for them to control their behavior. Additionally, trauma can skew a child’s ability to interpret social cues and express feelings appropriately, which again can lead to disruptive behavior and is often associated with academic difficulties.
Rather than responding with frustration and harsh punishment, educators can coach students to calm themselves and adjust their responses. By helping students de-escalate their feelings of emotional overload, teachers can direct them to healthier responses and improve their chances of engaging in learning.
Trauma’s Impact on Students’ Academic Performance
Trauma can plague students with intrusive thoughts that distract them from absorbing information in lessons, paying attention in class, or studying. The disruptive behavior students with traumatic histories often display interrupts instruction and leads to more suspensions and expulsions, further reducing their instructional time. Compared with their peers, students with these troubled backgrounds tend to have:
- Lower grade-point averages
- Higher high-school dropout rates
- Poorer employment rates
Trauma can also affect children’s executive functions, limiting their comprehension, memory, organization, and engagement. With reduced capacities in those areas, students can struggle with reading, writing, math, and classroom discussions. Trauma can also delay and thwart their development of language skills and hamper their ability to synthesize information or see cause-and-effect relationships. Such problems make success in school particularly challenging.
Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies
As students with trauma often experience feelings of anxiety and lack of control, classroom environments that help reduce stress and guide students toward open, trusted relationships can mitigate the problems that stem from traumatic histories. Trauma-informed teaching strategies foster predictability. They build a sense of stability for students, help cultivate self-worth, and give students opportunities to better regulate their emotions and improve their focus.
Trauma-informed teaching creates a space for students to build trust and recognizes that content may need to come after the forging of relationships. Trusted relationships often begin with getting to know one another personally. Activities that encourage students to share elements of who they are, such as their favorite songs and interests, help establish a foundation for relationships. For example, community circle conversations can guide students through discussions in which they share their ideas, express their concerns, and connect with peers and teachers.
Teachers can also cultivate trust and build rapport with increased one-on-one interaction. This creates a chance for them to have conversations with students related and unrelated to school. In this way, teachers can help give students a sense of belonging and support.
Restorative Approaches to Discipline
All too often schools mete out punishment for bad behavior without helping students reflect on or adjust their actions. Restorative approaches shift the discipline focus to be positive and supportive rather than punitive. Students with traumatic backgrounds need this kind of support to heal and restore their faith in fairness. They also often need opportunities to rebuild positive relationships with authority figures, and restorative discipline does just that.
Restorative discipline can take many shapes. For example, for younger students, teachers can create “fairness committees.” These committees, made up of students and teachers, let students explain themselves when they’ve done something wrong. Then, instead of doling out a punishment, the committee helps students make amends.
To complement restorative discipline, educators can implement other important restorative strategies, such as meditation, counseling, and team-building exercises. These activities augment students’ abilities to reflect on their behaviors, self-regulate, and build trust.
Opportunities to Build Self-Efficacy
Students with traumatic histories often have low self-esteem. They can also feel uncertain about their environments and unable to control them. Giving these students regular opportunities to cultivate self-efficacy, or a belief in themselves and their abilities to meet the challenges in front of them, can prove to be healing.
Trauma-informed teaching should give students responsibility and opportunities to achieve. Both responsibility and achievement help students feel in charge of themselves and promote feelings of self-worth and competence. Several techniques can improve students’ chances of success while encouraging accountability.
For example, schools can encourage classroom policies that allow students to submit work for early feedback before receiving final grades or revise their work until they earn a desired score. These policies give students multiple chances to show what they’ve learned, improve their grades, and ultimately build an image of themselves as capable learners. These policies also reduce stress because they let students see a path to reaching competency.
Learn How to Put Trauma-Informed Teaching Into Action
Educators can create safe learning environments for students with trauma by implementing thoughtful programs that make use of trauma-informed teaching strategies. Explore how American University’s School of Education prepares educators to use creative approaches to reach all students through its online degree programs.