Trauma is not a one-size-fits-all issue. As a teacher, you are likely to encounter students suffering from trauma for various reasons.

Every student is unique, and so is their trauma. It’s important to fully understand what trauma is and how it can impact how your students behave and learn. Below, we’ll explore how trauma can significantly impact learning, how children are perceived due to their behavior, and how trauma-informed teaching can be used to support children with trauma.

Education resources


Why is it important to understand trauma?

Your student body is not a monolith. Each child is an individual, and expecting every child to behave and perform in the same manner is unrealistic. This becomes even more unfair once you examine the trauma they may be experiencing or have experienced in the past. It’s easy for educators to believe that a student’s behavior is simply defiant or stubborn, but there is often a root cause that should be explored.

By doling out punishments without further investigation, students with trauma who display poor behavior will likely fall behind in class, become disengaged, and be unable to break out of negative cycles. Stop and think – what is a child’s behavior saying beyond what you can perceive through their outward words and actions? And how might your teaching be able to help them? This is the beginning of becoming a trauma-informed educator.

What is trauma?

So, what exactly is trauma? While we may hear the word often said, it’s difficult to grasp it fully. Trauma is how the body and mind react to a frightening, upsetting, or unsafe situation. These can be instances of a single event, like witnessing a violent act or accident. Still, trauma can also emerge from ongoing events, such as child abuse, neglect, or bullying in school. Trauma is complex and can have many causes – being discriminated against can result in trauma, as can living in poverty or an unsafe area.

How trauma works

Trauma occurs when the body senses that a threat is present. This causes an energy surge (the fight or flight response) to flood into the parts of the brain, which allows us to avoid the threat. While this is a useful and essential evolutionary function, it also shifts the focus away from the parts of the brain that children need to learn.

Children are known to be resilient, and many will recover from challenging or upsetting situations over time. A fight or flight response may pass quickly, but it can become ingrained due to repeated traumatic events. This means they’re constantly looking for threats and may become too vigilant. Traumatized children become hypervigilant and can react to everyday situations with the same intensity, fear, and upset as they might to a more “serious” danger. For example, being asked why they didn’t complete a task or assignment may result in a meltdown.

Trauma and learning

Due to hypervigilance, trauma can completely alter a child’s capacity for learning. Children suffering from trauma cannot access the parts of their brains needed for taking in new information as easily as their peers. This is not a behavioral issue or “laziness” – it is a biological change in their brain function due to trauma. This is why it’s vital to spot when trauma has slowed down how well a child learns or stops it entirely.

Trauma and neurodivergence

One important consideration is that neurodivergence or learning difficulties may be suspected when trauma is the root cause of behavioral or learning issues. Those displaying signs of irritability, restlessness, or being poorly organized may be suspected of having attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). At the same time, those who cannot perform class tasks might be tested for learning disabilities.

While it’s essential to assess any child who may be neurodivergent fully, there is a significant overlap between ADHD, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), learning difficulties, and trauma. Students who have suffered from trauma may display symptoms without being neurodivergent, but undiagnosed neurodivergent or learning-disabled students are also more likely to experience trauma. This can be due to struggling with classwork or difficulty relating to peers. Understanding trauma, neurodivergence, and learning difficulties is important to reach a proper diagnosis and provide the best trauma-informed teaching and treatment.

How to spot trauma at school

If you’re not aware of the trauma that your students have experienced, it’s much more challenging to support them fully. Not all students or their families will feel comfortable disclosing trauma or even be aware of it. So if you notice a child displaying behavioral, emotional, or learning issues, begin making notes on any changes in how they act. A shy student may suddenly become loud, or a diligent student may become “lazy” or disorganized. The impact of trauma is not always immediate, so finding a cause is not the main idea here – you should simply look for signs such as:

  • Aggression or anger
  • Physical issues such as stomach problems
  • Seeming sad or crying without reason
  • Overreacting to everyday situations
  • Behaving oddly or inappropriately with peers
  • Being unable to focus
  • Poor organization
  • Not completing classwork
  • Increased clinginess toward a teacher or peer
  • Isolating from others
  • Seeming to “regress” in behavior or education

Why trauma-informed teaching matters

Understanding how trauma works and being able to spot the signs will allow you to employ trauma-informed teaching strategies. This will let you build stronger relationships with your students and their caregivers. You will demonstrate to students that you care about and want to support them properly. This can be a powerful tool in their recovery from trauma.

How can you use trauma-informed teaching?

When using trauma-informed teaching strategies, you should:

  • Allow students to talk or write about how they feel
  • Always be empathetic toward students
  • Stay conscious of your emotional reactions and manage them
  • Understand that students will react negatively
  • Provide a calm and safe space for students who are upset or angry
  • Reassure children that their reactions and feelings are normal
  • Don’t take students’ behavior as a personal insult
  • Speak to caregivers or families and work with them
  • Be aware of cultural sensitivities
  • Model positive social skills and emotional responses for all children
  • Ask for support from specialists

Trauma can be present for several reasons, not all obvious to teachers or families. Understanding the complexity of trauma in more detail and using trauma-informed teaching strategies can be vital for ensuring that you’re unlocking the potential of each student. With these tools, you can better meet them where they are and show them that you care.