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Understanding Trauma & How to Help Students Deal With It

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January 02, 2024


Behavior disruptions are one of the most challenging parts of being a teacher. All too often these disruptions are caused by students who are dealing with trauma. Their trauma makes it difficult for them to focus and make good choices in the classroom. Educators must seek to understand trauma in their students and find ways to help our students navigate their trauma so they and others can learn.

What is Trauma?

We hear about PTSD, and most people think of combat veterans or victims of horrific crimes. One definition of trauma is any experience a person is overwhelmed by and unable to handle in a healthy way. What is traumatic for one person may not be for another. What’s more, there are different types of trauma.

Different Types of Trauma & How they Affect Students

Two Types: There are two main types of trauma according to Elyssa Barbash Ph.D. of Psychology today: Big T and Little T trauma. Big T trauma is the types of things that we usually think of as causing trauma. They are big, often one-time events that affect a student such as the sudden death of a close loved one, a car accident, or a natural disaster. Little T trauma is small, everyday occurrences such as living in a high-stress household, a verbally abusive parent, multiple moves, divorce, or bullying.

Variances in the Effect of Trauma: Sometimes students have experienced a Big T trauma, and with the addition of some Little t trauma they are overwhelmed by the experience, and it becomes traumatic. Students with better support systems are less likely to be as affected by trauma as others. Personality, personal belief systems and availability of coping skills also factor in with how well kids can handle traumatic experiences.
A natural disaster that happens to a student with a reliable support system may be far less traumatizing than a student living daily with abuse and neglect.

Effects of Trauma on Children: Trauma makes kids hypervigilant. That means they are on edge, waiting for something to harm them, and always ready to protect themselves. They may have difficulty trusting.

Some of the symptoms of hypervigilance may mimic ADHD. For example, hypervigilant kids may have trouble focusing and may be impulsive and lash out at others. Children who have experienced trauma may also over-respond or under-respond to stimuli (lights, touches, sounds).

Trauma impairs the ability of the brain to develop normally. Children in traumatic environments have more difficulty learning. Triggers in the environment, even regular sights, smells and sounds can trigger a child back into trauma where they might lash out and act in ways that make no sense to other children and adults around them. These behaviors at one time served to protect the child.1

How to Help Students Who Have Experienced Trauma

What doesn’t work?
Punishment won’t improve the behaviors of a child suffering from trauma. In fact, it can make things worse. Shaming and isolating children can compound their trauma as well. Often kids blame themselves and being shamed by an adult only solidifies their belief that they are somehow to blame.

What DOES Works

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes for trauma. Teachers, administrators and others working with these kids should try to understand where the student is coming from, while also realizing you may not get all the answers.

• Trial and Error: As Lauren Dotson of Education Week describes,

“The journey of trauma-informed care is one that requires trial and error; it often tests the boundaries of one’s own comfort zone.”

• Consistency and predictability: Children feel safest when they are in an environment where they know what to expect. We can make school a safe place for them. A reprieve from the chaos of the outside world.

• Give them a safe space: Children who are experiencing trauma need a place to go to calm themselves down. If possible, dedicate a corner of the classroom as a ‘calm down corner.’ Allow kids to go there when they need to get into a better frame of mind. The school can also have a dedicated safe space when it is no longer possible for the child to calm down in the classroom.

• Teach meditation, guided imagery, and deep breathing. Children who have experienced trauma typically lack the skills necessary to calm themselves down when they are triggered. We can teach them the coping skills to deal with the stresses they are facing.

• Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Use your best judgment on what each student needs. What works for one student may not for another. Worry less about what is fair and more about meeting the needs of each student.

Teaching a student who is dealing with trauma is a challenging task and, unfortunately, one that is getting to be more and more common. There aren’t any quick fixes, but it is possible, with time and effort, to help students to manage their trauma and be successful in the classroom.


  1. Peterson, Sarah. “About Child Trauma: Effects.” NCTSN, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 23 Mar. 2018, www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/complex-trauma/effects.

By: Amy Curletto

Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.

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