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Trauma-Exposed Students: How Schools Can Help

By Caren Caty, Ph.D.

Children and adolescents exposed to trauma are at risk for developing maladaptive coping styles, especially when they are exposed to multiple traumatic events. If left unresolved and unprocessed, traumatic stress may result in enduring patterns of emotional distress and behavioral problems. School-age youth with traumatic stress may exhibit increased anxiety and worry about safety of self and others, negative thoughts and feelings, discomfort with emotions, increased somatic complaints, rumination or re-experiencing aspects of the trauma, avoidance behaviors, emotional numbing, a startle response after an unexpected sound or sudden movement, and heightened arousal marked by aggressive, reckless, or self-destructive behavior. Some changes in behavior that may be observed at school include: decreased attention, increased activity level, lower grades, greater absenteeism, irritability, angry outbursts, impulsive behavior, and withdrawal.

Schools can be helpful in the identification and treatment of trauma:

School personnel are often the first to notice a trauma-exposed child’s symptoms and can refer the child for mental health intervention. A trauma-exposed child may exhibit emotional distress or behavioral problems which can interfere with the child's ability to learn in the classroom. While teachers may be the first to notice such behaviors they may not be aware of the traumatic experience faced by the child because children are often silent about traumatic events that happen to them, particularly in the case of child abuse and domestic violence. Children may not disclose these traumas for a variety of reasons including fear of being removed from their homes and concerns about disappointing their parents or caregivers. When school personnel understand the potential behaviors associated with traumatic stress, they are less likely to interpret a child’s behavior as intentionally defiant and are more equipped to intervene in ways that decrease rather than increase a child’s negative behaviors.

In addition, schools are often the sensible place to screen for traumatic stress reactions after traumatic events impacting communities. With adequate screening for trauma history and proper referral, children with psychological symptoms related to trauma exposure can be identified, referred, and offered school-based interventions aimed at improving adaptive functioning and reducing stress.

Schools are a natural environment for teaching adaptive coping skills and creating safe and supportive opportunities for children to practice effective coping skills, not only for trauma-related memories or trauma-triggers, but also for other life challenges. After a traumatic event, there is a benefit in returning to predictable routines that help children to return to a sense of normalcy, and the school setting provides many of these routines for children. In this role, schools can provide reassurance and a sense of safety for the child impacted by trauma. That sense of normalcy and safety provided by the school setting, along with appropriate intervention for traumatic stress, allow children to work towards restoring their sense of well-being and gaining a sense of optimism for the future.

When school personnel understand the impact of childhood trauma and recognize and understand the signs and symptoms of traumatic stress, they can partner with parents and other caregivers as well as medical and mental health providers to provide preventive education and effective interventions for trauma recovery.

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Trauma-Exposed Students

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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