Originally posted on February 19, 2018 and revised on March 11, 2022.
Teachers and caregivers have long understood that children impacted by trauma, including abuse, illness, family conflict, and grief, need additional emotional and developmental support. Young children living with trauma can be easily overcome by fear, anxiety, or aggression, and often have difficulty connecting with others. The hopeful news is that we can help young students overcome their adverse experiences and thrive in our care when we use trauma-sensitive strategies.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, all children impacted by trauma experience both behavioral and physiological symptoms. Unlike older children, young children cannot always express when they feel afraid, overwhelmed, or helpless. NCTSN describes the unique needs of young children this way:
“Traumatic events have a profound sensory impact on young children. Their sense of safety may be shattered by frightening visual stimuli, loud noises, violent movements, and other sensations associated with an unpredictable frightening event. The scary images tend to recur in the form of nightmares, new fears, and actions or play that reenact the event. Lacking an accurate understanding of the relationship between cause and effect, young children believe that their thoughts, wishes, and fears have the power to become real and can make things happen.”
So how can we help students in our care feel safe, secure, and nurtured?
One of the most empowering things teachers and caregivers can do is to implement trauma-sensitive strategies that support all learners. In this way, we are sure to reach the most vulnerable students. Below are some proactive steps we can take:
Build a Safe Learning Environment
When young children experience trauma, their first response is to look for reassurance from caregivers. These adults can re-establish security by creating safety and stability in the classroom. When we greet students warmly, praise them generously, and provide consistent routines, children learn to trust their caregivers and the environment. Here’s another way to help students feel safe: use student artwork to decorate the classroom at the start of a new year or new season. Seeing their work on the wall helps children see the room as theirs and feel a sense of connection and belonging. Class photographs are also a fun way to bring students together!
Create Calm, Predictable Transitions
Transitions can be especially difficult for students because the sense of a loss of control can activate their stress response. For some students, even common transitional cues such as ringing a bell or dimming the lights can trigger stress, so it’s helpful to announce these cues before doing them. The important thing is to build a routine around transitions, so children know:
- What the transition is going to look like
- What they should be doing
- What’s next
Safety and predictability reduces stress and gives students the chance to focus on learning.
Help Students Learn to Understand and Regulate Their Emotions
We already know the importance of helping students manage their emotions and empathize with others. These skills are even more important for students impacted by trauma who may experience greater stress, fear, anger, or sadness. Jenna Blimes, author of Beyond Behavior Management: The Six Life Skills Children Need, identifies strategies that can be used to help children learn and practice the skill of self-regulation:
- Name and validate feelings: Avoid judgment about how a child is feeling. Name and validate all emotions because learning how to manage all types of feelings will help them as they grow up.
- Emotional vocabulary: Use and build a varied and wide emotional vocabulary. Try to include words that are outside of the typical “happy,” “sad” or “angry,” such as “confused,” “generous,” “impatient,” “embarrassed,” and “frustrated.”
- Help children understand feelings are responses: Children need to know what triggers feelings. Teaching about cause and effect can help children understand feelings are a reaction they can manage in positive ways (such as deep breathing, counting, etc.).
- Help children notice feelings change: Feelings are not permanent and change over time. Help children understand they can manage their emotions by pointing out when emotions change in a child.
It is important to remember when young children cannot self-regulate, their behavior can become challenging. They may become overwhelmed or out of control. They may shove, grab, or push other children. They may be unable to recognize other children’s emotions when they are upset. In these moments, it is important to show patience while helping them recognize and manage their feelings. Discipline policies should reflect consistency, compassion, and support, rather than isolation or guilt.
A Brighter Future
Young children impacted by trauma can overcome the challenges they face with consistent interventions and support. As teachers, we can contribute to this success each day!