Occasional stress is a disruptive but normal part of a child’s life, whether it’s getting ready on time to catch the bus, having a lot of homework, or starting a new school. Children often have a difficult time managing their stress and need some guidance, which, as adults with experience, we can often provide if we take the time. Ideas like outdoor play, reading time, talking about the challenge, and taking some quiet time are all familiar ways we can teach them and help them cope.

Trauma can also be disruptive to daily life, but is much more severe and complex. It’s important to understand the difference and to deal with it in a different way for the sake of the child. Trauma can be a single, sudden event or a series of events that dramatically impacts the child’s life and changes the way he perceives the world. A traumatic event can be life-threatening or can deeply affect his sense of safety. Trauma can be individual and limited to one child in your class, or it can impact the entire class, for example a community disaster or other mass event.

Children who experience trauma have more difficulties regulating their behaviors and emotions, and may engage in risky behaviors. They may be disruptive, combative or withdrawn. We now know that trauma actually affects the development of the victim’s brain, and it needs to be treated differently than everyday stress.

Trends in Trauma Treatment in Children

Addressing trauma is now the expectation, not the exception, in behavioral health, and the good news is trauma is treatable. This is especially true for children experiencing mental health issues as they can receive the treatment they need when they most need it, and improve their opportunities to lead mentally healthier lives.

Trauma-informed care (TIC) involves a broad understanding of traumatic stress reactions and common responses to trauma. Trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT) more specifically is an evidenced-based practice that research shows is an excellent option for children. A structured, short-term treatment model, TF-CBT improves the mental health of children who experience any number of emotional, behavioral and mental effects caused by trauma, including depression and anxiety, which are some of the more common diagnoses among children.

Classroom Strategies for Helping Traumatized Kids

If a child under your care is suffering the effects of trauma, there are strategies you can use to help. First, understand that a child experiencing trauma is often going into survival mode. A calm, compassion response on your part is important.

“When you notice that a child might be having a difficult time, start by asking yourself, ‘What’s happening here?’ rather than ‘What’s wrong with this child?’ This simple mental switch can help you realize that the student has been triggered into a fear response, which can take many forms,” explains Joyce Dorado, director of UCS’s Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS) program.

Second, aim to create calm, predictable transitions in your class or group routines. Dorado explains that rapid or unexpected transitions can trigger a trauma response.

Also, be aware that “getting into trouble” can be a trigger for traumatized students. Dorado recommends that you praise publically, but alwaysgive feedback privately and calmly.

The Risk of Vicarious Trauma for Youth Workers

It’s important to understand that trauma can impact the adults in the child’s life in unexpected ways, too. As Emelina Minero explains in Edutopia, teachers and other youth workers are often traumatized through their work with traumatized kids.

“For teachers, who are directly exposed to a large number of young people with trauma in their work, a secondary type of trauma, known as vicarious trauma, is a big risk,” Minero explains. 

This vicarious trauma can impact adults in much that same way that first-hand trauma hits students – the brain, as Minero notes, goes into fear response. Adrenaline and cortisol are released; heart rate and blood pressure rise; and emotions are heightened.

If you are subject to this kind of secondary traumatic stress, be sure you are taking care of your own needs as well as those of your students.

Remember, although adults and children alike experience varying degrees of stress, it is a part of everyday living and can be successfully managed. Trauma, on the other hand, is a different experience that could significantly change a child’s ability to manage everyday life and requires more specific types of treatment. If you feel a child in your care needs this kind of help, consult with your school counselor or mental health professional.