Trauma Informed Schools

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and traumatic stress comes from a variety of sources, for example, bullying at school, school shootings, and exposure to events such as divorce or homelessness.

The following are ACE categories each category counts as one point:

  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Substance abuse in the household (living with an alcoholic or a person with a substance abuse problem
  • Mental illness in the household (living with someone who suffered from depression or mental illness, or who had attempted suicide)
  • Mother treated violently
  • Divorce, death or parental separation
  • Criminal behavior in the household (a household member going to prison)

Of over 17,000 people surveyed 67% had at least one ACE and 12.6% had four or more. Those surveyed were college educated White middle-class patients of Kaiser Healthcare in San Diego, CA. One out of four school children has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and or behavior. Both children and adults can be changed by traumatic stress.

Schools having tools to manage traumatic stress empowers the members of the school community, students, and parents. In trauma-informed schools, the staff is trained to recognize and respond to students who have been impacted by traumatic stress. Those staffs include administrators, teachers, supportive staff, parents, and law enforcement. Also, students are provided with clear expectations and communication strategies to guide them through stressful situations. The goal is to not only provide tools to cope with extreme conditions but to create an underlying culture of respect and support.

Trauma can affect children in a variety of ways. The effects are far more pervasive than adults imagine. Over 60% of children surveyed experienced some form of trauma in the prior school year, and some suffered multiple traumas. Most children do not have the necessary coping skills to manage the impact of traumatic experiences.

One in three students who experience a traumatic event might exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Following a child’s exposure to a traumatic event, parents and teachers may observe the following symptoms, such as re-experiencing the event by continually thinking about it, replaying it over in their minds, or having nightmares.

Symptoms of trauma can directly affect a student’s ability to learn. They may be distracted by thoughts of the event that prevent them from paying attention in class, studying, or doing well on a test. Exposure to violence can lead to decreased IQ and reading ability. Some students might avoid going to school altogether.

Exposure to violence and other traumatic events can disrupt their ability to relate to others and successfully manage their emotions. This can lead to poor classroom behavior, which can drastically affect the teacher’s ability to teach. This makes it stressful for teachers and can affect suspensions, and expulsion rates.

Multiple exposures to violent outcomes include lower grade point averages and reduced graduation rates, along with increased incidences of teen pregnancy, joblessness, and poverty.

What is Child Traumatic Stress?

When children and adolescents are exposed to traumatic events or traumatic situations persistent, exposure overwhelms their ability to cope. When children have been exposed to conditions where they feared for their lives or believed they could have been injured, witnessed violence, or tragically lost a loved one; they may show signs of traumatic stress.

The impact on any given child depends partly on the physical danger, partly on his or her subjective reaction to the events, and partly on his or her age and developmental level. Some students may consciously try to avoid engagement and try not to think about the incident.

If your child is experiencing traumatic stress, you might notice

the following signs:

  • Difficulty sleeping and nightmares
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Lack of appetite
  • Bed-wetting or other regression in behavior
  • Interference with developmental milestones
  • Anger
  • Getting into fights at school or fighting more with siblings
  • Difficulty paying attention to teachers at school and parents at home
  • Avoidance of scary situations
  • Withdrawal from friends or activities
  • Nervousness or jumpiness
  • Intrusive memories of what happened
  • Play that includes recreating the event
  • Negative Cognitions and Mood — blaming others or self, diminished interest in pleasurable activities, inability to remember key aspects of the event.
  • Arousal — being on edge, being on the lookout, continuously being worried.

In conclusion, if your child is experiencing any of the signs contact school counselors or your pediatrician for help.


Heddy Keith, author of Through It All: A Memoir of Love and Loss

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