What Do You Think?

Many of the challenging behaviors I see in my classroom are a result of exposure to trauma.

Here’s information about how you can understand and support trauma-exposed youth in your classroom.

Domestic Violence is a type of trauma. It is defined as the use of physical, sexual, economic, psychological and/or emotional abuse by one person in an intimate relationship in order to establish and maintain power and control over the other person. Many children and youth are often exposed to this type of violence in their homes. 1 in 15 children are exposed to interpersonal violence every year, and 90% of these children are eye witnesses to this violence (NYCADV).

All children and youth exposed to domestic violence are impacted. However, the extent of this impact varies greatly. The impact of domestic violence can have both short-term and long-term effects on overall functioning.


Short-term effects may include:

  • Difficulty concentrating or maintaining focus
  • Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
  • Low self-esteem
  • Engagement in risky behaviors
  • Increased aggression
  • Increased anxiety about being separated from parent
  • Increased worry about their safety or safety of their parent or caretaker

Long-term effects may include:

  • Distorted perceptions of self, others and the world
  • Belief that violence and coercion are typical aspects of intimate relationships
  • Belief that people who hurt others are not accountable for their actions
  • Maladaptive coping strategies
  • Health problems

Youth become traumatized when their internal and external resources are inadequate to cope with an external threat. Youth who have experienced a traumatic event present with varied signs and symptoms that can impact their functioning across the developmental spectrum.  Youth may be impacted by trauma in the following contexts: social, emotional, behavioral, developmental and neurobiological.  Signs and symptoms are age-specific in that certain signs and symptoms are more likely to occur at particular ages.  Educators should consider the developmental needs of youth when assessing the appropriateness of a particular sign or symptom.

Examples of signs and symptoms of trauma are as follows:

  • Extreme reactions to typical discipline (not including developmentally-appropriate responses)
  • Social withdrawal / isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating or staying “present”
  • Problems with explicit memory
  • Aggressive and/or disruptive behavior
  • Excessive irritability/anger/sadness
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Psychosomatic symptoms (i.e. stomach, head or muscle aches)
  • Use of unsafe coping tools (i.e. use of substances, self-injurious behavior, physical altercations)
  • Engagement in risky behaviors or unsafe relationships

Trauma can have a significant impact on academic success for youth. Research suggests that trauma impacts overall brain development, impacting areas that support concentration, attention, memory, and organizational and language abilities. It is also typical that traumatized youth may be preoccupied with worry regarding their safety, or the safety of someone they care about, which can also interfere with the learning process. Often times, educators misread youth’s academic needs and, instead, assume that youth are incapable of, or unwilling to, manage academic tasks, which can undermine a student’s history of trauma.


Signs that learning has been impacted by trauma are:

  • Lower IQ score
  • Lower Grade Point Average
  • Presence of learning disabilities
  • Poor skill development
  • Attention Problems
  • Memory Problems
  • Truancy
  • Disruptive behaviors in classroom

Exposure to trauma can impact youth and their ability to attend to, integrate and apply knowledge that is learned in school. As many educators have experienced, this can significantly interfere with academic and social success in the classroom. Below are some tips for cultivating a safe and contained classroom, which can help students stay focused and concentrate on learning.

  • Create a classroom environment that is physically and emotionally safe
  • Foster positive connections with students
  • Use a variety of teaching strategies tailored to varied student needs
  • Forecast what you expect from students and strive for consistency
  • Try to notice, and be mindful of, your students’ triggers
  • Provide positive experiences and activities that promote security, self-esteem and learning
  • Allow students to arrive each day with a “clean slate”
  • Don’t take students’ behaviors personally
  • Be mindful of vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress and burnout and how this impacts your connectivity with students

Educators work arduously to effectively support youth in their classrooms. Youth who are in distress often have difficulty thriving in school. Below are some things educators can do to best help students, who have experienced trauma, be successful in the classroom.

  • Learn more about how trauma affects children / youth development
  • Model non-violent and respectful behaviors / communication
  • Maintain a routine in the classroom
  • Be approachable
  • Set clear limits
  • Be aware that using aggressive language can trigger a traumatized youth
  • Talk to the youth in private about your concerns
  • Refer the youth discretely for mental health counseling
  • Keep your knowledge about a youth’s participation in treatment confidential
Why is it important for educators to be aware of emotional trauma?

All educators interact with youth who have experienced some form of trauma, even if educators do not know this.  Schools can provide stability for youth who are currently experiencing, or have experienced, trauma.  Educators have the unique opportunity to help traumatized youth reconnect to another adult in a safe, nurturing manner. In doing so, the educator has the potential to impact the youth’s emotional well-being and academic success.

Can talking and/or teaching about trauma scare youth?

How educators approach the topic is more impactful than the topic itself.  Educators should be aware of their youth’s developmental needs and adapt the conversation / lesson to best fit them.  Remember, youth are not adults; they need information in doses that are appropriate for their maturity level and level of comprehension.  If educators are successful in doing this, youth can view the lesson as information, much like anything else they may learn in school, and can make individual decisions regarding how it should be applied. 

Why are some youth more affected by trauma than others?

All youth are susceptible to trauma, but some are at higher risk of being impacted negatively.  This is because the impact of trauma is based on an interplay of protective and risk factors.  Protective factors act as a buffer to ward off the negative effects of trauma; risk factors, on the other hand, increase the likelihood that youth will be negatively impacted by a traumatic experience.

Examples of protective factors are:

  • Availability of an attentive and nurturing caretaker / supportive resource
  • High level of family functioning, structure and attachment
  • Other supportive adults outside of the family system who act as positive role models
  • Limited life stressors (i.e. poverty, unemployment, illness)
  • Availability of support services, interventions and networks within the community
  • High cognitive and social functioning


Many educators are not trained to talk to youth about trauma. What advice would you give them?

Speak with school administrators regarding policies and procedures related to supporting trauma-exposed youth to help guide your response. Also, utilize your colleagues; sit down with them and discuss concerning behaviors. It is important that school staff use one another as a sounding board to flush out feelings, thoughts and reactions to learning struggles in the classroom, as well as to receive feedback. It is also a great time to discuss your expectations to ensure that those expectations are realistic for youth who are struggling academically. Take time to learn more about the impact of trauma on development and learning, and request training if necessary.

Once you feel prepared to speak with youth directly, don’t be weary of the topic. If you address the topic in an educational way, it makes it easier to incorporate it into a lesson that will allow youth to increase their knowledge of trauma and to learn skills for managing their trauma responses.