Many educators ask, “How do I know if a student has experienced trauma, and what does trauma look like in the classroom?” It’s important to remember that trauma looks different for each and every person—from the experiences themselves, to their emotional impacts, to the ways in which they manifest themselves, to what is needed to heal from them.
Educators may never have a clear answer as to whether or not a student has experienced trauma, nor a full picture of a student’s emotional well-being or needs. Given these limitations, we must always embody trauma responsiveness in all of our interactions with students to ensure that we are providing support to any and all students.
How Does Trauma Impact the Brain?
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines a traumatic event as any “frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity.” This extends to events that impact the ones around them, such as the loss of a loved one or witnessing harm being done to another person.
Because the primary goal of a person’s brain and body is survival, when a student experiences a traumatic event—a perceived threat to their life—the brain and body react immediately and aggressively to avoid this harm by directing their energy toward keeping them alive. This puts the student into a state of anxiety and stress. Their brain hyper-focuses on the danger and is unable to think about much of anything else until it has passed.
Even when it has passed, the brain and body may remain on alert in case another threat is coming. For students who have or are experiencing frequent trauma, it becomes increasingly difficult to ever feel safe, no matter where they are or what is happening around them.
What does this feel like? Think about what happens in your own body and the pattern of your thoughts when you experience stress. Now, think about how it would be to experience that stress in a classroom while seeing and hearing all of the people around you, trying to think about and process the curriculum, and managing all of the classroom rules and expectations. Would you be able to focus on your learning? What about if something unexpected happened, or if a classmate said something unexpected? How would you react?
We all experience these states of stress sometimes. Students who have experienced or are experiencing trauma are perpetually in this state of survival brain, amplified. Consistently experiencing trauma, especially while the brain is still developing, prevents the brain from being able to focus on and process learning and to build the executive functioning skills to productively manage upsetting and unexpected events around them, including those that others might deem to be minor.
These students have neither the space nor the brain capacity to learn how to effectively manage their strong emotions, and they may develop unproductive coping strategies.
What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?
When a student is experiencing trauma, you may see signs of it in the classroom, but you will likely never have a clear yes or no answer—nor is it your job to seek one or to provide counseling on one. Educators are mandated reporters and are obligated to report any evidence or suspicion of trauma, but educators should not probe the student to tell us more.
Without professional training and certification, this questioning may bring more harm and trauma to the student, despite our intentions. Instead, as educators, knowing the signs and symptoms of trauma can be helpful to shift our mindsets toward embodying trauma responsiveness into the essence of who we are as teachers.
When we know the effects of and signs of trauma, we can detach students’ behaviors from being immutable parts of their character and instead think of the behaviors as learned coping mechanisms to keep the students safe while under immense stress from their environments and experiences. When we know the effects of and signs of trauma, we can move away from disciplining unproductive coping mechanisms. We can support students with unlearning the responses that do not serve to push them toward their goals and that do not keep them safe. We can use our expertise to teach and practice new responses that will better serve our students and our classrooms.
Some classroom signs of trauma:
- Extreme shyness and difficulty engaging with others
- Disproportionate reactions to setbacks and unexpected changes
- Trouble managing strong emotions (extreme anger, excessive crying, etc.)
- Difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next
- Frequent complaints of feeling sick
- Difficulty focusing
- Lack of safety awareness
- Missed deadlines
- Poor academic performance
- Apathy and lack of effort
- Perfectionist tendencies
- Physical and/or verbal aggression
Take a moment to pause and reflect on the experiences you have had with students demonstrating any of these signs.
- What have you (or colleagues, or administrators, or district policies) attributed these behaviors to in students in the past?
- How were you trained to respond to these behaviors? How did you respond?
- How did this response affect the student? (Did it de-escalate the situation and empower the student with more productive strategies to use in the future? How did it make the student feel about themselves and about their place in the classroom?)
Now, think about these experiences in light of our learning on how trauma impacts the brain and may influence behavior. If this student had experienced trauma, consider the following questions:
- How effective was this response? (Did it de-escalate the situation and empower the student with more productive strategies to use in the future? How did it make the student feel about themselves and about their place in the classroom?)
- Would you respond the same way again?
- If not, what can you commit to doing differently next time to ensure that every child—no matter the context and no matter the situation—feels seen, empowered, and safe in your classroom?