Special Education

Some FAQs for Educators on Children’s Trauma

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 20, 2019 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

While the word “trauma” has become something of a colloquial term, the chronic stress associated with severe and ongoing health and education problems is not related to low-level stressors such as watching a scary movie or getting in a fight with your best friend. As school districts explore trauma-informed practices or work to develop trauma-sensitive schools, a new understanding of trauma is emerging.

What do we mean when we say trauma and traumatic stress?

The National Institute of Mental Health defines two basic kinds of trauma.

The first comes from a single incident, often a disaster such as a hurricane or a school shooting. These affect many students or a whole community and often involve broad community responses.

The second type—and common but often much harder for school staff to spot—is complex trauma, such as chronic neglect, housing or food instability, or physical or sexual abuse.

Complex trauma can lead to so-called “toxic stress,” defined as a response to “severe, prolonged, or repetitive adversity with a lack of the necessary nurturance or support of a caregiver to prevent an abnormal stress response.”

Not all students who experience a traumatic event develop a toxic response; studies have found those with a strong support structure tend to be resilient.

Are “Adverse Childhood Experiences” the same as trauma?

One of the most popular concepts for understanding and gauging trauma is the adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, framework, which uses a set of common examples of abuse, neglect, and family problems that are associated with long-term problems in health, education, and social relationships.

ACEs were coined in a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the health provider Kaiser Permanente. Researchers initially interviewed more than 217,000 adults about whether they had ever experienced the following situations: physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; physical or emotional neglect; having a parent or caregiver who died, was divorced, or incarcerated, had severe mental illness, or abused drugs or alcohol; or if they had ever been the victim of or witnessed violence in the home.

Traumatic experiences cluster, researchers found. Children whose families were dysfunctional or unstable were more likely to experience abuse or neglect, for example.

In an ongoing series of longitudinal studies, researchers found that the higher the number of ACEs a child experienced (particularly if there are four or more) the worse their outcomes in education, physical and mental health, and the tendency to engage in risky behaviors. Moreover, no individual type of ACE proved more damaging than another; chronic emotional abuse or living with a drug-addicted family member caused long-term brain changes in the same way as sexual abuse.

It’s important to note that the original ACEs study focused on adults, and researchers in the 20 years since the original 1998 study have tailored the types of childhood adversity included in these lists. The most recent federal survey of adverse childhood experiences, part of the National Survey of Children’s Health, also counts growing up under extreme financial instability, in which families often cannot afford basic food and housing.

What does toxic stress do?

Studies have found intense trauma and chronic toxic stress increase inflammation and weaken the immune system, impair memory and attention, and increase the risk of developmental delays. Neurologically, trauma has also been found to make children’s brains more “reactive"—quicker to stress, harder to soothe, and likelier to interpret and react to neutral situations as threatening. A 2016 study in the Journal of Applied School Psychology notes that “children who have experienced complex trauma may develop maladaptive coping mechanisms: anger outbursts, substance abuse, truancy, and other challenging behaviors. These behaviors may make students appear hostile and oppositional, belying their vulnerability.”

In the long run, those who experienced four or more ACEs were four to 12 times as likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, engage in risky sexual behavior, or commit suicide, compared with those who did not have traumatic experiences. A 2018 study of K-6 students also found each ACE increased a student’s risk of absenteeism, behavior problems, and performing below-grade level in reading, writing, and mathematics.

What does federal law say about trauma-informed schools?

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act encourages states and districts to incorporate “trauma-informed practices that are evidence-based.” Districts can use Title II money to train teachers in “the techniques and supports needed to help educators understand when and how to refer students affected by trauma, and children with, or at risk of, mental illness” as well as “training for all school personnel on how to prevent and recognize child sexual abuse.”

About This Series

This is the first installment in a series of articles exploring how schools are learning to recognize and respond to students experiencing stress, whether their trauma stems from a sudden disaster or a long-term hardship like poverty or abuse. Read More.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act currently refers to trauma only for preschool-age children. Districts can identify children for early intervention services under IDEA for experiencing a “substantial case of trauma due to family violence.”

However, in several ongoing lawsuits, courts are exploring whether complex trauma may qualify as a disability that would require a student to be given an individualized education program, and separately, that districts may need to adjust a student’s IEP to address trauma the student experienced after first being identified under IDEA.

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as Some FAQ’s for Educators on Children’s Trauma

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Opinion Five Teacher-Recommended Strategies to Support Students With Learning Differences
Four educators share strategies for supporting students with learning differences, including utilizing "wait time" and relationship building.
11 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Special Education The Pandemic Made It Harder to Spot Students With Disabilities. Now Schools Must Catch Up
After more than a year of disruption for all students, the pressure's on to find those in need of special education and provide services.
13 min read
Aikin listens to her eight-year-old son, Carter, as he reads in the family’s home in Katy, TX, on Thursday, July 8, 2021. Carter has dyslexia and Aikin could not help but smile at the improvement in his fluency as he read out loud.
Kanisha Aikin listens to her 8-year-old son, Carter, who has dyslexia, as he reads aloud in the family’s home in Katy, Texas.
Annie Mulligan for Education Week
Special Education What Employers Can Teach Schools About Neurodiversity
The benefits of neurodiversity have gained traction in business, but college and career support for students with disabilities falls short.
8 min read
Special Education The Challenge of Teaching Students With Visual Disabilities From Afar
Teachers of students with visual disabilities struggle to provide 3-D instruction in a two-dimensional remote learning environment.
Katie Livingstone
5 min read
Neal McKenzie
Neal McKenzie, an assistive technology specialist, works with a student who has a visual impairment in Sonoma County, Calif.<br/>
Courtesy Photo