More than two-thirds of children report experiencing at least one traumatic event by the age of 161. This means it is highly likely there are children in your classroom who have experienced trauma. Examples of traumatic events include physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic community violence, severe bullying, serious accidents or severe illness, or the sudden loss of a loved one. Some traumatic experiences are short-lived, while others are an ongoing part of their lives.
Children react to stress and trauma in different ways. While some children recover within a few weeks or months from traumatic stress, others may experience lasting difficulties and may need extra help in order to get better. For those children, without help, problems can sometimes escalate and lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
For teachers, it’s important to understand that trauma reactions in children can sometimes look like other problems, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder, autism spectrum, or generalized anxiety. Telling the difference can be a challenge, but there are some key things to look for.
Signs and Symptoms of Trauma
Anxiety and fear. For younger children, this may look like “clinginess” to teachers and caregivers and “meltdowns” when separated from those adults. Young children may also develop new fears of things like the dark, monsters, thunderstorms, etc. Children who are old enough to use words may express fears about the safety of themselves or others. They may worry that the traumatic event will happen again.
Being hyper or “riled up.” Sometimes anxiety is expressed as excess energy. These children might have trouble sitting still or staying in their seat. This trauma-related problem is sometimes misattributed to ADHD.
Jumpiness. When triggered by a possible reminder of their trauma, children may be easily startled and upset. Common triggers include physical touch, sudden movements, or loud noises. Some children even become under-reactive to things that would typically cause pain. These under or overreactions to touch, sound, etc., are sometimes mistaken for a sensory disorder or autism.
Problems with development. Preschool-aged children may stop making progress in the development milestones or regress on previously mastered activities, such as using the potty or using words or sentences.
Recreating the traumatic event. While teenagers with trauma reactions report overwhelming memories or “flashbacks,” young children don’t often have the words to express these experiences. Instead, children may “act out” their traumatic event through play (e.g., with dolls or toys) or art (e.g., drawing the event). Children might also engage in overly aggressive or sexualized play. They might also draw, talk or ask a lot about death or dying.
Looking tired, falling asleep in class, or being late or missing school.Children who have experienced trauma may avoid sleeping due to anxiety or wake up frequently because of nightmares. This may lead to sluggishness and sleepiness in the classroom. This, as well as the anxiety, might also lead to being late to school or missing class. Similarly, it is common for them to have trouble eating, which can lead to weight loss and low energy from lack of nutrition.
Body aches and pains. It is common for children to express emotional pain physically. For example, they may complain of stomachaches or headaches.
Problems paying attention and dropping grades. As you can imagine, all of the above problems can affect a child’s ability to concentrate and learn. Children who have experienced trauma may appear “spacey,” and their grades may suffer.
Moodiness or aggression. Trauma can lead to difficulty regulating and controlling emotional reactions, especially in children who are still developing emotional awareness and learning about their feelings. There may be feelings of guilt or shame about their trauma, or a child may appear “whiny,” easily irritated, or angered. They may also appear overly sensitive in response to small challenges, such as someone taking their pencil or cutting in line. This difficulty regulating emotions sometimes leads to being aggressive with peers and teachers, or harming themselves.
Emotional numbing. While some children become more emotionally sensitive, others might be under-reactive or appear to “not care” about important things like their friends or school work.
Isolating from friends, teachers, and fun activities. Children who are struggling with trauma reactions may have difficulty having social interactions with their peers due to anxiety. They also may begin to have difficulty trusting others or may be rejected by peers due to problems controlling their emotions.
Doing risky things. To cope with overwhelming emotions, teenagers may act out by engaging in risky behaviors, such as using alcohol or drugs. Or they may engage in risky sexual behaviors or not be cautious while doing things like driving or playing sports.
What to Do if a Student Has Experienced Trauma
If you suspect that a child in your classroom may be experiencing posttraumatic stress reactions, there are ways you can help:
- First, make sure the child is in a safe environment.
- Approach the child with empathy, and let them know that it’s safe to talk to you. But do not force them to talk if they are unwilling.
- If they are engaging in risky, aggressive or dangerous behaviors, help them to stay safe. Let them know their strong emotions are a normal response to difficult experiences, and tell them you can help them find ways to cope with their emotions safely.
- Finally, connect their safe caregivers to the appropriate resources in the community. Collect a list of organizations and providers in the community that work with or specialize in childhood trauma.
For more in depth information on childhood trauma and how you can help your students, review the Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators created by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
1Copeland, W.E., Keeler G., Angold, A., & Costello, E.J. (2007). “Traumatic Events and Posttraumatic Stress in Childhood.” Archives of General Psychiatry. 64(5), 577-584.
Vanessa Jacoby, Ph.D.
Vanessa Jacoby, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor and Licensed Clinical Psychologist with a child specialization in the Division of Behavioral Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center. She is member of the STRONG STAR Multidisciplinary Research Consortium and the Consortium to Alleviate PTSD, whose mission is to alleviate and prevent posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other deployment related problems in active duty service members and their families. In her work at STRONG STAR, Dr. Jacoby conducts prevention and supportive programs with military families with young children experiencing deployment.
The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.