General Information

When children experience something—either real or perceived—that threatens their lives or sense of safety, it can overwhelm their capacity to regulate their emotions. Generally, traumatic events evoke feelings of extreme fear and helplessness—children no longer trust what they once believed to be certain about their world. A child may be affected by trauma because of events such as a sudden loss or injury or an unremitting circumstance such as chronic neglect or a long illness.

Some traumatic experiences occur once in a lifetime, others are ongoing. Some children experience multiple traumas, and for too many children, trauma is a chronic part of their lives.

Some children show signs of stress in the first few weeks after a trauma but then return to their usual state of physical and emotional health. For others, recovery can be much more difficult and prolonged.

General Characteristics To Look For

The symptoms of trauma in a child can range from evident, external distress to withdrawal and becoming more internally closed off. Often the best indicator is whether a student has changed over time. Does his/her trajectory seem developmentally predictable? Or does it seem unexpected, given what is known about the child? Other indicators may include

  • expressions of anxiety, fear, and worry about the safety of self and others
  • increased distress or increased withdrawal
  • curiosity about death and dying that is inconsistent with the child’s developmental age
  • a change in the child’s normal activity level or engagement
  • concentration problems
  • avoidance behaviours (e.g., resisting going to places that remind him/her of the event)
  • hyper-arousal (e.g., being easily startled)
  • recreating/reliving the event (e.g., repeatedly talking about, “playing out”, or drawing the event)
  • increased SOMATIC complaints (e.g., headaches, stomach aches, overreaction to minor bumps and bruises)
  • absenteeism
  • change in academic performance
  • over- or under-reacting to bells, physical contact, slamming doors, etc.

Impact On Student Success

  • Students suffering from the effects of trauma can be prone to stress, worry, mistrust of their environment, and negative beliefs about themselves.
  • Their internal resources are so caught up in managing the effects of trauma that they have little left to apply to school.
  • Many behaviours seen in students who have experienced trauma are nearly identical to those of students with developmental delays, AD/HD, and other mental health concerns. When efforts and energy are directed to addressing these apparent symptoms and not the trauma itself, the student and the support team can feel discouraged when outcomes do not improve.
  • Understand that children cope by re-enacting trauma through play or through their interactions with others. Resist their efforts to draw you into negative repetitions of the trauma (e.g., some students will try to provoke teachers and other adults in order to replay abusive situations from their home lives).
  • Set clear, firm limits for inappropriate behaviour and develop logical consequences.
  • Give the child choices or control (within safe bounds) when appropriate.
  • In every class, every day, there may be a child who is currently living in a potentially traumatic environment or is reacting to the effects of a past trauma. Be alert to this as a possible explanation for a child’s difficulties.
  • Give the child permission to leave class to go to a designated adult if feelings become overwhelming or build in a designated quiet space and time for these students.
  • Keep routines predictable.
  • Warn students if you will be doing something out of the ordinary, even a small thing such as turning the lights off.
  • Anticipate difficult times and provide additional support. Being able to foresee situations that a student might react to means being ready to help the student deal with the situation.
  • Consider making temporary ACCOMMODATIONS and MODIFICATIONS to academic work—shorten assignments, help organize tasks, and/or allow additional completion time.
  • Ensure that students have access to positive opportunities for engaging in school activities, recreation, and community events. All these supports can help to rebuild a student’s capacity to feel hopeful about him/herself and the world.
  • When possible, consult with parents/caregivers and students to flesh out situations that might be difficult for the students so that the school can provide appropriate levels of support.
  • Provide professional development opportunities for staff.
  • Share information with the school staff that can help them make adjustments for the child.
  • Help the school to restore regular academic functioning at a pace that does not overwhelm the child but at the same time does not minimize what he/she is capable of.
  • Consider whether counselling services might help the child and the family as a whole. If so, participate fully in the treatment.
  • Consider the family and school environments and roles when developing a treatment plan.
  • Help parents/caregivers and schools participate in the implementation and support of services that reinforce evidence-informed approaches to treatment.
  • Foster a team approach between child, parent/caregiver, school staff, and mental health counsellor.
  • Provide information about how an individual student is affected by trauma and what home- or school-based strategies might help.
  • Assess the need/readiness for treatment.
  • Facilitate referrals for specialized services as needed.
  • Keep families and schools informed of treatment progress and setbacks so that they can make sense of what they are experiencing with the child.
  • Make services fit the family, not the other way around.
  • Engage in ongoing joint training initiatives.