What is Trauma? A Brief Intro for Educators

tags: Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education Linking Research to Classrooms: A Blog for Educators

By Lisa Carey
January 9, 2018


Trauma can be a one-time event, such as a tornado or hurricane, or the death of a loved one. Trauma can also be ongoing, such as chronic physical or emotional abuse, neighborhood violence, or living  with housing and food insecurity.  According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), one in every four school-aged children has experienced trauma.  Given the high rate of students who may experience trauma and the effect it can have on a student’s ability to concentrate, remember, process information, and effectively problem solve or plan, we need to start treating trauma as an educational issue.

Teachers are routinely trained and legally obligated to report suspected abuses.  However, we are not typically informed of how traumas such as chronic abuse might impact a child’s ability to learn in our classrooms.   And while we might be able to get assistance in shielding our students from an abusive guardian, we do not have routine conversations about how to operate as a protective factor when students are exposed to traumatic events such as neighborhood violence, natural disasters, poverty, or terrifying news reports of school shootings.  In looking at the NCTSN data, it becomes clear that a proactive approach to learning about the impacts of trauma on learning and how to mitigate trauma’s impact on students should be included in the many ways educators are trained to respond to the needs of children.  Rather than waiting for a traumatic event, or for a traumatized student to enter your room, we can anticipate that we will at some point  need to know how to proactively respond, if we don’t already.

How does Trauma impact learning?

Experiences of trauma may cause students to become concerned with their safety.  This may lead to hypervigilance, meaning that students are preoccupied with their surroundings and evaluating the safety of a given situation.  An ongoing concern with safety can make it difficult to concentrate, resulting in missed instruction, directions, and peer interactions(1).

Students who have been impacted by trauma are also likely to experience heightened anxiety.  As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, anxiety can make it difficult to use executive function skills.  These are skills that are important for executing goal-directed behaviors.  Anxiety’s negative impact on inhibitory control, working memory, and flexible thinking can make students appear impulsive, inattentive, and inflexible.  Students may also have trouble managing their emotions(2).  This negative impact to self-regulation can result in disruptive and aggressive behaviors that make students more likely to be removed from the classroom, resulting in missed instructional time(3).  It is important to keep in mind that students who have experienced trauma are just as variable as the rest of your class.  While some students may react aggressively to triggers of their fear and anxiety, others may become withdrawn and quiet.

Additionally, students may have physical symptoms that interfere with learning(3).  Students may have physical injuries due to abuse, or altercations within an ongoing dangerous setting.  However, psychosomatic ailments are also common.  Students may experience headaches, stomachaches, and other pains.   It is important to note that these pains, while linked to psychological trauma rather than a physical ailment, hurt no less and should be treated just as seriously.

What is Trauma Informed Teaching?

Trauma informed teaching or trauma sensitive teaching are practices related to understanding the impact of trauma on learning and recognizing and engaging in adult behaviors that are supportive of student mental health and avoidant of exacerbating student trauma symptoms and experiences(3).  Recognizing that trauma has impacted student emotional regulation, trauma informed educators focus on their own behaviors, mindsets, and the learning environment they create as way to support students.  For some schools, this may be a conceptual shift from focusing on student behaviors to focusing on adult educator behaviors.

Currently, there are several frameworks that assist educators in remaining sensitive to students impacted by trauma.   On such framework, from Multiplying Connections uses the acronym CAPPD which stands for “Calm, Attuned, Present, Predictable, and Don’t let a child’s behavior escalate your own” to help educators remember how to be responsive in their classrooms.   Another framework from Australia called Making SPACE for Learning uses the acronym SPACE to remind educators to keep their classroom practices, “staged, predictable, adaptive, connected, and enabled.”  Both frameworks focus on the learning environment and educator behaviors as important factors of creating a classroom that is prepared to receive and care for trauma impacted students. 

What is my first step?  

In addition to learning about the ways in which trauma may impact student learning, the first step to becoming a more trauma-sensitive educator is to evaluate your own reactions to student behaviors.  Do emotionally reactive students cause you to escalate your own behavior?  For example, when a student yells, do you yell back?  (It’s ok to say yes, this is a common response and takes time to unlearn.) Do withdrawn students frustrate you to the point that you stop trying to interact with them?  Do you have the coping skills and strategies to help your remain calm in the face of struggling students? 

Educators need to focus on their own mental health and behavioral reactivity in order to meet the needs students who dealing with trauma(3).  This may feel at odds with other teaching approaches, in which we focus on what students will be doing. Rather than creating changes to lessons, or even the classroom environment, the first steps to helping students who have experienced trauma is to ensure that you are emotionally prepared to do so.  Many teachers are finding success with mindfulness practices as both a way for them to manage their own stress as well as a helpful classroom practice(2).  For more information about mindfulness in the classroom, check out our previous posts on mindfulness.

Once you feel emotionally prepared to be supportive of students who have experienced trauma, you can invest time into creating a supportive classroom culture and environment.  By creating predictable routines, creating flexible instruction, and reducing unnecessary threats in the classroom, you can help students feel safe, and reduce their anxiety.

Stay tuned to the Linking Research to Classrooms Blog for future pieces about this important topic. 


  1. Greeson JKP, Briggs EC, Layne CM, Harolyn M, Belcher E, Ostrowski SA, et al. Traumatic Childhood Experiences in the 21st Century Century : Broadening and Building on the ACE Studies with Data from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. J Interpers Violence. 2013;1–21.
  2. Sibinga EMS, Webb L, Ghazarian SR, Ellen JM. School-Based Mindfulness Instruction: An RCT. Pediatrics [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2017 Jun 19];137(1). Available from: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/137/1/e20152532.full.pdf
  3. Crosby SD. An Ecological Perspective on Emerging Trauma-Informed Teaching Practices. Child Sch. 2015;37(4):223–30.

Have a topic or question you would like to see addressed in a future Linking Research to Classrooms blog?

Enter your topic /question in our contact form.