Understanding Trauma Toolkit

Trauma Impacts Students’ Success

Trauma is much more common than most of us think and can significantly impact a student’s ability to succeed in school. Trauma can result in cognitive and behavioral changes and affect how students view themselves, how they view the world, how they process information, and how they perceive and respond to their environment (including voice tones, lighting, sounds and proximity of others).

What is Trauma?

Children can experience trauma from events that they experience or witness. Childhood trauma does not refer only to child maltreatment (for example, abuse and/or neglect); it can result from any aversive event. Research is continuing to emerge about intergenerational trauma and the way parents’ experiences of past trauma (slavery, the Holocaust, racism) can impact the DNA and behavior of their offspring for generations.

Some examples of situations that might cause a child trauma include:

  • Fear-based parenting/physical punishment
  • Witnessing or hearing domestic violence
  • Hearing about, witnessing or experiencing community violence (e.g., shootings, stabbings or fighting at home, in the neighborhood or at school)
  • Witnessing police activity or having a close relative incarcerated
  • Out of home placements/change of caregivers
    Frequent moves/school changes
  • Childhood illness/hospital experiences/birth complications
  • Humiliating or deeply disturbing experiences
  • Media and technology stress/digital harassment
  • Substance abuse in the home
  • Chronic disruptions in the first three years of life
  • Divorce/blended families
  • Living in chronically chaotic environments in which housing and financial resources are not consistently available
  • Parent with mental health problems
  • Loss of, or separation with, caregiver
  • Absent/indifferent parenting
  • Emotional violence/digital harassment
  • Birth order/sibling overload
  • School pressure/competition

Trauma and the Brain

There are three main brain regions:

  • The “thinking brain” or neocortex
  • The “emotional brain” or limbic system
  • The “survival brain” or the brainstem

Children who have experienced trauma tend to use predominantly the emotional and survival brains. It is important that children are met where they are currently, whether they are in survival or “fight, flight or freeze” mode. It is helpful to think about meeting developmental needs: When a child is feeling either chronically or situationally challenged, you meet the needs of the survival and emotional brain first. When a child feels safe and supported, they are then more capable of utilizing their “thinking” brain.


“Thinking Brain” Interventions

social exploration, complex conversation, storytelling, performing arts, formal education, cognitive-behavioral interventions, goal formulation, academic achievement, cause and effect learning, homework, positive behavioral supports

“Emotional Brain” Interventions

sharing with a friend, social experiences, narrative, complex movement, mutual engagement, creative arts, parallel play, small group activity, individual play therapy, psychotherapy, feeling charts, emotional expression, time in, journaling, feelings charades

“Survival Brain” Interventions

healthy adult support and nurturing, rhythmic movement, patterned sensory input (trauma releasing experiences), responsive caregiving, attunement, massage, drumming, counting, focusing, belly breathing, replacement experiences, containment, distraction, sensory rooms, sensory snacks, music, relaxation practices, guided imagery, primal nurturing

Making Safe Spaces

Creating safety is critically important for children who have experienced trauma. Schools can greatly help them by creating safe places:

  • Have a safety zone, safe haven, “time-in,” “chill out” or relaxation room immediately available. It is important to have a safe place within the classroom where a student can have some privacy and solitude when they feel overwhelmed.
  • Have rooms that are clean and clutter free.
  • Create a home-like, as opposed to institution-like, feeling.
  • Use warm colors and soothing surroundings.
  • Keep sensory tools available to provide students with soothing sensory options to help relax their nervous system (for example, stress balls or Play-Doh).
  • Trauma-impacted students often become overwhelmed by noise, crowds, chaos or trying to engage in social interactions, such as during an assembly or recess. It is important to assess what bothers these students and offer alternatives, such as going to the library, the resource room, an empty classroom or tutoring center.

How Adults Can Help

Children who have experienced trauma also need the acceptance of caring adults; thus it is important that school personnel:

  • Gain insight into the impact of trauma on the child’s body and mind
  • Provide total acceptance of the feelings, emotions, themes and body sensations a child is experiencing
  • Understand that problematic behavior that arises is often not willful misconduct or disobedience. Instead it is a result of a child’s trauma and conditioned responses to threats, which were at one time adaptive (i.e., helped them to survive physically and psychologically).
  • Look at the big picture—repairing the biopsychosocial world of a child who has experienced trauma is a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Know their own sore spots, weaknesses and/or limitations
  • Work on their own tolerance level
  • Never emotionally blackmail a student (i.e., making it appear that your love and acceptance of them is dependent on their behavior, action and/or compliance).
  • Treat the child and not their label(s)

What to Know About Physical Touch

Physical touch is important and can be healing for children who have experienced trauma. However, physical touch can also be very frightening and triggering for some children; thus, it must be used carefully and cautiously. Here are some pointers:

  • Don’t touch a student from behind; make sure they can see you and what you are doing.
  • Respect boundaries. Be cognizant of how the child reacts to your touch to determine whether it was a positive or negative experience for the child and adjust accordingly.
  • Provide non-physical affection. Affection and affirmation can be conveyed to children in many different ways. Just because a child finds physical touch scary or threatening does not mean that they should not receive positive attention and affection from the adults in their life.

Little Things Make a Big Difference

Teachers are not therapists and are not expected to heal the wounds of students who have experienced trauma; however, teachers and school personnel can absolutely be key players in these students’ healing process, helping them to feel safe, confident, competent and successful. Teachers and school personnel can be tremendously helpful just by acknowledge the humanity of each and every one of their students.

  • While some student behavior may be frustrating, or even scary, it is important to understand that they are a by-product of their traumatic experiences and are simply the use of survival strategies that became reinforced because they were once adaptive. Thus, it is important not to be threatened by these behaviors and instead try to understand the root cause of these behaviors in order to more effectively manage them (e.g., does the child feel unsafe or threatened in the classroom?).
  • Notice the little things your students do; make sure that students receive plenty of positive attention. Some children cannot accept too much praise, though, so try to find the level of acknowledgement that they can tolerate.
  • It is important to respect your students even when they are disrespectful. Many children who have experienced trauma have not experienced unconditional and/or consistent love and caregiving. Teachers and other school personnel can be some of the first people in a student’s life to show them that they are loved and worthy no matter what.
  • Quick gestures of friendliness and random acts of kindness can go a long way in helping you develop a helpful and meaningful relationship with your students.
  • Greet your students by name every day. It is important that they feel special and that you are sincerely happy to see them.
  • Try to see the world through your students’ eyes. It is important to remember that what is important is not how you see yourself (e.g., “I am a safe, caring, and nice person) but rather how the student sees you. For example, a child who has been abused by an adult may see you as scary and threatening simply because you are an adult. Thus, you may need to make changes or efforts to help the student feel safe. (For example, get on your knees when you go up to talk to them so you are at the same height, talk in a quiet and soothing tone, etc.).

The Importance of Play and Movement

Play is extremely important for all children and can be especially helpful and therapeutic for children who have experienced trauma. The practice:

  • Helps the child warm up to you.
  • Helps the child to relax and see you as someone who could bring them some relief.
  • Helps the child to feel safe and helps them bring down their defenses.
  • Releases endorphins and stimulates positive feeling states.

Play is the language of young children. It is often through play that children express and communicate their fears, emotions and conflicts. Be observant, as you can learn much about your students through observing their play.


  • Work with your school administration to implement more recess. Two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute break is a minimum. All of us need this.
  • Work in full-body movement every hour of your class. (Some students may need more than this). Stand up and stretch. Have a dance party. March in place or around the classroom. Jump in place. Play follow the leader.
  • Be sure to follow an “up activity” with a “down activity,” such as a breathing exercise.

Safety Plans

Some students, especially higher-risk students, may require an individualized safety plan to help them feel safe, increase self-regulation, and be successful in school. The plan should:

  • Include individualized strategies that help meet the specific needs of the student, such as a pre-available pass to the sensory room or library.
  • View the student’s problem behaviors as ineffective attempts to cope with traumatic symptoms.
  • Focus not just on the student’s classroom behavior, but on their wellness. The plan should include strategies to make the child feel safe, valued and happy.
  • Be available to all of the adults who work with the child, including the student’s parents, so that they can all be supporters and advocates of the student.
  • Include frequent large muscle movement, sensory, and relaxation exercises and strategies. The use of rocking chairs, spinning bikes, trampolines, swings, dancing, marching exercises, jumping exercises and deep breathing can all be very helpful.
  • Include strategies to help the child with their relationships—both with their teachers their peers.
  • Collaborate with parents, foster parents and other invested adults for input and suggestions about any aspect of the safety plan.
  • Be continually evaluated and improved. It is important to monitor how the student is doing and make changes to the safety plan as needed.

Key Components of a Safety Plan

What are the student’s triggers? (Note: Some triggers are hard to detect because they have been generalized from the original trauma. For example, a door slamming may have preceded an instance of domestic violence that resulted in significant parental injury. A generalized trigger may now be a door opening suddenly.)

  • What are the student’s signs of dysregulation?
  • What does the child need from the school environment?
  • What does the child need from their relationships?

Note: Please reach out for help in these situations. Caring for children with trauma is everyone’s responsibility. Your Intermediate School District (ISD) should be able to help. You can also reach out to Student Advocacy Center’s helpline for one-on-one consultations at helpline@studentadvocacycenter.org.

Five Important Questions

How am I feeling?

What does the student feel, need or want?

How is the environment impacting the child? (sensory assaults, triggers)

How can I depend on my relationship with the child in this moment?

How do I best respond?

Source: Micsak, J. (2013). Healing the inside child: Neurophysiological considerations with today’s students


Trauma-Informed Training Resources

Partner with these resources to learn more about the impact of trauma on children. 

Webinar: Addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences in School Discipline

This Fix School Discipline webinar focuses on fostering students’ strength to overcome trauma and violence. Instead of saying “what is wrong with you?” educators can learn to ask “what has happened to you?”

National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children

Talking About Race

Talking about race isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has developed a great collection of resources and tools for educators, parents & caregivers, and others to utilize in their journey.

Beyond the Stoplight

A resource for parents, caregivers and educators, designed to create equitable and caring classrooms for all children.

Spotlight on a Trauma-Sensitive School in Walla Walla, WA

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Center for Collaborative Problem Solving