Childhood Trauma: How Early Childhood Educators Can Make a Difference

January 31, 2020

Almost all of us have seen the signs: a child who cowers in a corner instead of playing with classmates, another who lashes out when asked to put away toys. It could be a normal sign of development. But many times, it’s something far more serious – early childhood trauma.

Almost half of U.S. children – about 35 million – have suffered one or more types of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and our youngest children are at especially high risk. What constitutes an ACE? It can range from living through a natural disaster such as the earthquakes and wildfires that have ravaged western states recently, to witnessing violence, suffering a dramatic loss, discrimination, forced displacement or refugee status.

Childhood trauma has reached epidemic proportions and afflicts all racial, ethnic and economic groups. But it disproportionally impacts low-income children of color.

Early educators are in a unique position to help these children by finding ways to keep them from being caught in a downward spiral. And recognizing ACEs early is critical because developing brains are highly susceptible to toxic stress. This type of long-term stress impairs how the brain works, crushes our will to survive and reduces our ability to learn.

But helping youngsters who have experienced an ACE isn’t easy, especially in early childhood settings that must meet the needs of all children. Affected children may frighten easily and suffer anxiety in unfamiliar situations. They may be clingy, difficult to soothe, aggressive or impulsive. They may have trouble sleeping or falling asleep. Children suffering the effects of an ACE live in a state of constant vigilance, much like PTSD, that leaves them little energy for developing, thinking and learning.

Disruptive behavior is often the first red flag of trauma and should lead educators to explore the cause. The question they should be asking is not “what’s wrong with that child?” but “what happened to that child?” Too often, educators mistake that red flag for bad behavior that needs “fixing.”

Many times, the result is the expulsion of pre-K children. Across the nation, more than 5,000 pre-K children are expelled each year, predisposing them to numerous future risks, including school failure, teen pregnancy, unemployment and violence. Children expelled from pre-school are much more likely to be unprepared for elementary school and among those most at risk for school failure. So, it’s important to give traumatized children the tools to succeed rather than expelling them.

For a traumatized child to bounce back, they need at least one adult who gives them affection, a sense of belonging and support. Here are six tips for working with traumatized children:

  • Establish a daily routine.
    Children who’ve been through trauma worry about what’s going to happen next. Providing structure and predictability can be calming.
  • Don’t focus on the WHY. Focus on the WHAT.
    You don’t need to know exactly what caused the trauma to be able to help. Instead of centering on what happened, concentrate on the support you can give.
  • Schedule regular “brain breaks.”
    Traumatized children often have trouble staying focused for long periods. Tell the children at the start of the day when there will be breaks for free time, to play a game or stretch.
  • Try not to judge.
    It’s easy to discount an event as “not that bad.” But it’s how the child feels about the source of the stress that matters most.
  • Help children feel they’re good at something.
    Children who’ve been through trauma need to get their sense of self-worth through concrete tasks. Find opportunities for them to set and meet goals so they’ll enjoy a sense of achievement and control. Assigning them jobs in the classroom that they can do well is a good example.
  • Ask children what you can do to help them make it through the day.
    They may ask to listen to music with headphones or put their head on their desk for a few minutes. If they don’t respond, ask if there’s something you can do to make them feel even a little bit better.

The early childhood setting might be the only safe, secure place that some children experience all day. You have the power to ease their anxiety and set them up for a lifetime of success!


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