Trauma is more prevalent than most educators realize. While most incidences occur outside school, they can still have a profound effect on learning.

The connection between adverse experiences in childhood and how they impact health and well-being later in life comes to light in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some of the traumas identified within the 1995–97 study include witnessing violence in homes, being a direct target of abuse, and living with a family member with mental illness, alcoholism, or opioid addiction. Of course, this list is not all-inclusive and many other adversities exist. In order to maximize learning in the school setting, we first need to have a clear understanding of how trauma is defined and how it affects learning and emotional growth.

Trauma Defined

Trauma is an event or events that involve threatened or actual death or serious injury to a child or others, or a threat to the psychological or physical integrity of the child or others. Essentially, trauma is an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope. It can include a variety of experiences, from a car accident to a divorce to a brutally destructive act, such as rape. Because trauma can be viewed subjectively, the definition is broad, as each person processes a traumatic experience differently. Since reactions differ and vary along a spectrum, types of trauma can be segregated into different categories.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop in some people who have experienced a dangerous, scary, or shocking situation. Not everyone who suffers from PTSD has been through a dangerous event. Some experiences such as the death of a loved one or divorce can be cause for PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD usually occur within three months of the event and must last more than one month and be severe enough to interfere with work, relationships, or school to fall into this classification.

Developmental Trauma Disorder

Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) forms in the first three years of life and is a result of abuse, neglect and/or abandonment, witnessing domestic violence, and/or physical or sexual assault. Children with DTD have difficulty developing neurologically, cognitively, and psychologically. Adults who inflict the developmental trauma do not always do so intentionally. Instead, they may be unaware of the social and emotional needs of young children and precipitate DTD unknowingly. Educators need to be aware of this new diagnostic category that captures traditional diagnoses of conduct disorders and reactive attachment disorder. Many times, diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, oppositional defiant disorder/conduct disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other anxiety disorders exist along with DTD.

Complex Trauma

Children may experience more than one trauma over a lifetime. Complex trauma is a term that was first explored in 2003 by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s Complex Trauma Task Force. This term emerged from the recognition that many people experience multiple adversities over the course of their lifetime. These traumatic events are severe and pervasive and may have wide-ranging, long-term effects.

Trauma’s Effect on Learning

Students affected by trauma demonstrate emotional and behavioral difficulties that may manifest during school hours and become a detriment to learning. Some students may internalize behaviors; therefore, a teacher may not know the child has been or is involved in a traumatic situation. Furthermore, trauma can adversely affect cognitive and academic skills. So, what exactly does trauma look like in school? Cognitively, students may have trouble processing or following instructions. They may struggle with solving problems, have executive functioning challenges, or have difficulty understanding consequences for their actions. Behaviorally, students may appear as if they could have a diagnosis of ADHD. Additionally, a student may exhibit heightened vigilance, aggressive or withdrawn behaviors, self-destructive behaviors, and reckless and risk-taking behaviors.

How to Help

Educators and administrators alike can take a number of important steps to support adolescent learners affected by trauma in the classroom. First, districtwide trauma-sensitive and social-emotional training is imperative for all staff members—including teachers, classroom assistants, cafeteria workers, office staff, and bus drivers. While this is a very important first step, we must also understand that one professional development day will not be enough to truly inform the participants about the many intricacies of trauma. Involving an instructional coach who is well-versed and educated in the field of trauma is key. We must also provide additional resources for all school staff so they can continue to learn about childhood trauma.

Once basic professional training has occurred, there are many other strategies and supports that can be implemented within the classroom.

  1. Provide structure. A lack of structure, consistency, and boundaries can trigger students who have experienced trauma. A clear agenda for the day’s class will help provide the structure that adolescents affected by trauma need.
  2. Build relationships. Building relationships with teens is imperative. “Unconditional positive regard” is a term that can be defined as the various ways an adult shows genuine respect for students as persons. Students need a compassionate adult who can empathize with and support them in their struggles.
  3. Use adolescent literature. Bibliotherapy has been defined as the process of using literature to solve problems. Finding books tailored to selected traumatic events could be used in counseling sessions led by social workers, school psychologists, or guidance counselors. Other books could be used with a whole classroom to help students focus on shared adolescent experiences. The children’s book Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud could be used for students to support the development of emotional regulation and empathy building. Remember that children’s literature books—like McCloud’s book—can also be used effectively in middle level and secondary classrooms.
  4. Bolster short-term memory. Many individuals who suffer from PTSD will struggle with short-term memory recall. Compared with nonabused children, children with abuse-associated PTSD may also show less effective activation of the area of the brain responsible for short-term memory during a memory recall task. Using visualization techniques—such as having students create a picture in their mind of what they just read or heard—can help them with recalling the facts they just learned. Furthermore, this is supporting receptive language. Consider using graphic organizers as another helpful tool to remember important information in content-area classes.
  5. Follow the Universal Design for Learning framework. Educators have been using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework as a way of thinking about teaching and learning that helps give all students the opportunity to succeed. UDL strategies are extremely useful for children affected by trauma. The number of strategies available are endless. One resource with a full list of various strategies using the UDL framework can be found at For more information about the UDL framework, visit
  6. Allow breaks. Give students the chance to take a break if they feel anxious. Develop a plan with the student if they feel overwhelmed or triggered. Find a designated area in the school building where students can go to allow them time to regulate emotions.
  7. Use “feelings” words. Children affected by trauma often have difficulty expressing their thoughts and feelings. Encouraging students to use adjectives or “feeling” words will help them better convey their emotions. You can help by providing them with some of the words they are seeking. Start a word bank or a list of various adjectives they can use to describe how they are feeling; for younger children, you can use pictures. This could be a whole class effort or for individual students needing this support.
  8. Take care of yourself, too. When on an airplane, the directions provided for emergency situations state that you must place your oxygen mask on first and then attend to others. The same is true for educators. Educators need to prevent burnout, so it is important to implement self-care strategies. Meditation, yoga, and mindfulness are all great strategies to consider. These practices are good for individual practice and self-renewal.

Educators who are engaging and supporting children affected by trauma can see a student prevail academically, socially, and emotionally. A positive school climate improves academic achievement. Continued professional development also informs educators of the latest strategies and research in the area of trauma. Young people benefit from a positive school climate that is deeply rooted in a trauma-informed approach, which will lead them on the path to academic and emotional success.

Colleen Lelli, EdD, is an associate professor of education and director for the Barbara and John Jordan Center for Children of Trauma and Domestic Violence Education at Cabrini University in Radnor, PA.

Sidebar: Examples of Trauma

Traumatic experiences manifest themselves in many ways and may be a detriment to learning. Some may include:

  • Experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Witnessing or experiencing violence in one’s community
  • Living with a loved one with mental illness
  • Experiencing abandonment or neglect
  • Encountering divorce
  • Facing death or loss of a loved one
  • Experiencing medical trauma—a child or family member’s illness
  • Suffering a natural disaster
  • Homelessness

Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Wellness

Together with staff members, you can determine the wellness needs of the school community and then identify or create schoolwide programs or strategies that address those needs. You can ensure that wellness initiatives are integrated into the day-to-day work of the school. Some actions to take:

  • Facilitate staff members, parents, and students in collaboratively identifying particular areas of need related to safety, wellness, and the positive, proactive social and mental health of each student and adult.
  • Ensure that social-emotional wellness programs are integrated into the day-to-day work of the school.
  • Promote the work-life balance of members of the faculty and staff—including yourself as principal.

Wellness is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.