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Addressing Trauma in Children and Adolescents

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Meredith comes to school wearing the same clothes every day.

Often, little James is nodding off at his desk, using his books as a pillow.

Caitlin is always angry, pushing away others and shouting.

Benjamin sits alone, staring at his feet or out the window.

Front line workers such as teachers, paraprofessionals, or professionals working with children often encounter one of these types of situations in their working environment. It’s all part of a growing epidemic of childhood and teen trauma brought on by a myriad of causes:  homelessness, bullying, domestic violence, communities racked by gun violence, neglect, and war, to name a few.

We all know dealing with trauma at any age is a challenge. Life experience and a support circle help many of us overcome the effects of trauma. But for a number of children and adolescents, they may have limited coping skills or a fragile safety net.  Or the trauma is too overwhelming to deal with.  As a result, a traumatic incident can have a serious impact on their development, setting them on a path of frustration and even failure.

In fact, a landmark study in 1998— the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study — established a disturbing link between childhood trauma and increased risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, and severe obesity, to name just a few.  It began to inform many disciplines, from psychiatry to social work to teaching, that childhood trauma was greater than we had imagined.  And in time for some cases, there became a name for what the child would be undergoing:  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.

The Long Reaching Impact of COVID-19

Since the COVID pandemic, trauma and mental health issues have risen and continue to rise in K-12 classrooms (World Health Organization).  Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic led to significant disruptions for youth with in-person learning and access to supports at school, social and community networks, and changes in the predictability of daily routines that are particularly important for children during times of crisis (Brooks et al., 2020).

And according to the American Psychological Association, the pandemic has also exposed the existing disparities in mental health services. A 2020 technical report from the University of Massachusetts Boston and the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that students who needed access to school-based services the most, particularly those with lower socioeconomic backgrounds, had lower rates of counselors and school psychologists in their districts.

As a result, teachers and other educational-based professionals have become more important than ever in helping to mitigate childhood trauma.

Best Practices to Address Trauma in Children and Adolescents

Teachers, paraprofessionals, and people working with children and adolescents have an integral role in trauma-informed care.  But many have not had a dedicated course in understanding the impacts of trauma or knowledge of the body of work that addresses trauma-informed teaching and responsive practices.

To create a trauma-sensitive school, where every classroom is safe, healthy, engaging, and challenging for each student, educators must incorporate a trauma-informed approach. This involves first learning about trauma and how it affects children’s behaviors, learning, and relationships.

A certificate or a customized program for your school environment, such as Bay Path’s Certificate in Trauma-Informed Professional Practices, is a first step in helping to recognize and manage traumatic behavior in the classroom.  Topics covered include definitions and concepts of trauma, how to support students living with trauma or stress, understanding trauma’s impact on behavior, and resources and strategies to help students navigate through their trauma.

Ultimately, trauma-informed practices help teachers, support staff, and students, whether they are young or adolescents, find a support system that will provide them with the attention they need to excel in the classroom and reach their potential, and create a resilient mindset to aid them in their life journey.