It’s amazing how we go through life, just doing what we do, not knowing what we don’t know. I was a victim of childhood trauma (several ACEs-Adverse Childhood Experiences). But, it was the 1970s and no one really did anything about it. I was just expected to “get over it.” Yes, I did eventually “get over it” but I made many poor decisions along the way.
Perhaps had someone reached out to help back then, I could have progressed along quicker. As an example, I had a tremendous amount of trouble “getting my shit together” as a young adult and it took me almost 7 years to complete my Bachelor’s degree. This isn’t because I wasn’t intelligent enough or lacked the ability. It’s because I lacked interpersonal and life skills due to my childhood upbringing. That’s a lot of tuition money and time I wasted.
Trauma and Kids and Learning is a concept that is getting a lot more attention in recent years. But, I find that many schools have a long way to go in both recognizing and acknowledging trauma and appropriately addressing it. Too often a traumatized child is viewed through the lens of “won’t” instead of the lens of “can’t.” You may also hear this referred to as ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences.
The brain of a child who has endured chronic trauma is not open and available for learning. These children’s lives are lived in the lower, more primitive areas of their brains that control survival. While we as adults know that the child is generally safe at school, these children are consistently terrified unless certain actions are taken to make them feel safe so that the higher parts of their brains may be turned on for learning.
Defining Childhood Trauma
First, the adults in a child’s life need to knock down the mental boundaries of what is our personal definition of trauma. Too many have a very narrow view of what trauma is, limited to things like physical and sexual abuse.
While those things are traumatic, there is much more that can occur.
- Sexual or physical abuse, not just limited to rape, could be something that was a “game” between peers that involved disrobing or sexting
- Natural disasters such as fires, hurricane, earthquakes, floods.
- Car crashes, household accidents.
- Yes, the pandemic!
- Public embarrassment or shaming, including social media bullying
- Living in Poverty and/or Homelessness, parents’ joblessness.
- Adoption/Foster Care Situations
- Death of parent or sibling or close relative/friend.
- Food Insecurity
- War (international adoptions)
- Witnessing a death, murder, or suicide (or attempt)
- Witnessing domestic abuse
- Witnessing a loved one’s severe illness, hospitalization, cancer treatment or seizures
- Being Raised with Addiction in the home
- Shootings (Drive-by shooting, school shooting, neighborhood)
- Racial trauma (also known as RBTS for Race-Based Traumatic Stress)
- Violence in the home (parent or sibling)
- Hostage situations
The good news is that unlike some medical conditions or disabilities where a set of lifelong accommodations is needed, people can heal from trauma and learn how to manage the symptoms associated with it and overcome it.
The bad news is that I see so, so many kids have their traumatic experiences dismissed and not addressed. And, that will make the situation worse. The child already has trust issues with adults and needs help. Then, they essentially are gaslighted all day, every day, being surrounded by school staff who are supposed to be helping. The child is likely often told “We’re trying to help you” but it doesn’t feel like help so it exacerbates a situation. This is particularly true when a child is disciplined or isolated for negative behaviors that are a manifestation of the trauma experience.
Evaluating for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Start with the school social worker, guidance counselor or school psychologist. Depending on the child, the ACE and the supports available outside of school, a brief 504 plan may be all that is needed. However, in more severe situations (no trusting adult in the child’s life, bounced around in foster homes) more intense therapy and instruction may be needed.
Whatever you do–if you, as an adult in a child’s life, have taken it on to help them heal from this trauma, make sure you can do this. You cannot abandon a child while they are trying to heal, especially if you have told them that you are going to help. That will worsen the situation. I say this to the school staff out there, or people in the community, who wish to help. You don’t have to be a parent to help, but you are making a commitment. Recognize the seriousness of that commitment.
Symptoms of Trauma
When a child has been the victim of a trauma, it can manifest itself in different ways. Quite often it is attributed to other things such as learning disabilities or mental illness, when in fact the learning disability or mental illness may resolve itself because it is secondary to the adverse childhood experience.
- Anxiety, panic attacks, chronic anxiety.
- Withdrawn from others, no real friends.
- Behaviors at school, particularly those that do not respond to any type of rewards or discipline.
- Lack of social awareness, personal boundaries.
- Constantly alert, hypervigilance.
- Impulsive decisions or no decision at all, avoidance.
- Re-enactment of the situation with various objects, plays games, or ‘scripting’ related to a specific incident or scenario.
- Difficulty sleeping
- Lack of energy or inability to calm down and turn things off at the end of the day.
- Lack of Executive Functioning Skills (because the brain is trapped in primitive problem solving)
- Inability to concentrate (often mistaken for ADHD)
- Lying, telling extraordinary stories and tales.
- Stealing, hoarding, food hoarding.
- Poor self-image
- Poor personal hygiene
- Bedwetting, other toileting issues.
- Guilty feelings
- Shows signs of obsessive or compulsive behaviors
- Recurrent nightmares, flashbacks
- Avoidance of situations similar to the traumatic event
- Feels pain, complains of pain, with no injury or illness
- Cutting/Self Harm
- Inability to give or receive proper love and affection
Typical strategies do not work with traumatized kids. Rewards and punishment do not work. Typical classroom management does not work. Waiting for several hours for food and hydration kicks their brains into survival mode. Trauma triggers switch them into a fight, flight, or freeze. Therefore, their IEPs or 504 plans at school need a different approach.
Trauma Driven IEP Goals
Language and approach is important. The language of the IEP or 504 should come across as team efforts to assist the child in need and is not directed at the child as a problem. Support, not punishment.
When I began to compile a list of IEP goals that would address trauma needs, I found that the list was really redundant with other lists of IEP goals on this website. That’s because trauma will manifest itself as other disorders. For example, anxiety. So I will direct you to those other lists of IEP goals. I have IEP Goals on this site for Anxiety, Working Memory, Social Skills, Behavior and several other subjects.
- Make teaching a priority: Do whatever it takes to get the child the help they need. If a traumatized kid does not learn the basics of relationships and life skills, no amount of math and reading is going to benefit them in life. Without interpersonal skills, academics will not help them necessarily hold down a job or maintain satisfying friendships or relationships. If we help them heal the trauma during childhood, we then can ensure that they understand how to interact with, communicate with, work with, and live with others. And if they need a few extra years to catch up on academics, so be it!
- Accommodations alone will not cut it: See the point above. But I’m serious! Too often, when a child struggles with a particular scenario, all the adults in the life just kill themselves trying to not have that child experience that particular scenario. We have to teach them through it. Yes, remove the expectation that the child completes that skill, if they do not have that skill set. But teach them the skill! Teach and accommodate!
Trauma-Informed Classroom Environment IEP Accommodations
- Frequent breaks with check-ins
- Sensory breaks, gross motor.
- “Cool Off Card” that child can use when feeling overwhelmed
- Access to a water bottle at all times
- One-on-one aide, para.
- Assistive technology (voice recorder, smartpen, etc.)
- Access to noise-canceling or noise-reducing headphones
- Preferential seating determined by student (by the door to allow breaks, by teacher in front of class to minimize distractions, in the back of the room to decrease feelings of threat from people behind, away from distractions like air conditioners, etc.)
- Allow the student to stand at the desk
- Seated on a fitness ball or wiggle seat; bands around chair legs for resistance
- Reduced visual and auditory stimuli around the classroom
- Reading tracker for reading
- Keep groups small (no more than 4 students) for activities
- Give tasks, directions, or assignments one at a time to prevent stressing and overwhelming the student.
- Assign a study buddy
- Allow the student to help another student in an area in which they excel to help bolster confidence.
- Access to sensory or self-regulation tools (stress ball, chewing gum, fidgets, etc)
- Shortened assignments
- Advance notice and preparation time for transitions
- Adult or peer to aid in transitions
- Advance notice and preparation time for changes in the daily routine, field trips, etc.
- Visual schedule for the student to carry
- Post the daily schedule in classroom
- Access to mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks (ideally, food—protein—offered every two hours)
- Movement or sensory activities at least every two hours
- Extended response time, or if being called on increases anxiety, not to call on a child unless they raise their hand.
Trauma-Informed Lunch and Recess IEP Accommodations
- Let the child be the guide for this–what do they want?
- Alternative location to eat rather than cafeteria?
- Safe adult to eat with?
- Or in the cafeteria with peers, but guaranteed to not sit alone?
- Smaller area to play in; preferred area and activities
- Adult Supervision as necessary–may need guided playtime or protection from bullying.
Trauma-Informed Homework and Test IEP Accommodations
- No Homework (not forever!). Homework often drives a wedge between parents/caregivers and kids, and until the relationship is solid, you need time at home to work on relationships. Not math worksheets
- Extended time
- Alternative assignments (include creative assignments)
- Exemption from all homework (possibly for a pre-determined amount of time)
- Extended time
- No timed tests
- Alternate format to meet the child’s specific needs (voice to text apps, etc.)
- Scribe to write for the student (or text to voice app
- Shortened tests
- Tests and Assignments are completed in a small group
- Activities are broken down into smaller assignments; chunked.
- Limit the number of problems on a page; increase white space to decrease overwhelm and stress.
- Shortened assignments, essential concepts only.
- Advance notice of any change in expectations.
- Allow the parent or peer/aide to transcribe the student’s work
- Reduce the amount of written work required.
Discipline and Trauma
- Absolutely! No use of seclusion or restraint is written into IEP or 504.
- Time-ins (with the teacher or trusted adult) versus time-outs.
- All Behavior Tells You Something! View all behavior as a message communicating a need and look for a way to meet the need. View as “can’t” rather than “won’t.”
- Teach the child the appropriate skills to handle that situation.
Lastly, here is a great booklet that I found online for you to read or print.