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The Impact of Trauma on Students & Learning

Alex Shevrin Venet (2021) reminds educators that trauma is a lens not a label. The importance of looking at trauma through a lens versus using trauma as a label is only too clear when we observe the harm caused by stereotypes attributed to labels placed on children, teens, and adults. When we implement trauma-informed practices with fidelity, a change in the lens through which we view ourselves and our students will occur simultaneously. Our lens inevitably alters as trauma-informed practices and how we understand the teaching and learning process are intertwined. And, once an educator’s narrative starts change, our belief system will move towards inclusive education practices for all students.

Students who have been exposed to trauma appear in our classrooms in greater numbers than ever before. Trauma-informed teaching requires changing educators’ narratives, or the stories we tell ourselves about how students learn and why they exhibit behaviors that challenge us. Opening our perspectives to other possible explanations for behaviors caused by processes we have not experienced ourselves is what allows us to be effective teachers.

Educators’ ability to walk in the shoes of their students may be limited by personal experience, but that is where increased knowledge and awareness, and perhaps some empathic imagination, can be of assistance. Our new framework of understanding may best be summarized by the view that everyone is doing the best they can, given the tools and resources they have.

Characteristics of Students Coping with Trauma from Interdisciplinary Research

  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Lack of cognitive flexibility
  • Deficits in expressive and receptive language skills
  • Inability to access working and long-term memory
  • Lack of, or inconsistent, executive functioning skills:
    • Problem-solving and decision-making skills
    • Organization and information processing skills
    • Planning and sequential thinking
    • Reasoning and higher-order thinking
  • Difficulty connecting extrinsic rewards and conceived consequences to behaviors
  • Increased impulsivity and risk-taking behaviors
  • Substance abuse
  • Anxiety and worry about safety & wellbeing of self and loved ones
  • Somatic symptoms and illness
  • Inconsistent engagement, performance, and effort
  • Inconsistent ability to attend, focus, and concentrate
  • Difficulty with perspective-taking
  • Hyperarousal, hypersensitivity, hypervigilance, or hyperactivity 
  • Shut-down, noncompliance, dissociation
  • Lack of motivation
  • Inability to shift attention from distressing emotions to other tasks
  • Tardiness and increased absences
  • Inability to connect long-term goals to current actions
  • Bonding too easily; clinging
  • Repetitive thoughts about death
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Disproportionate responses to present events
  • Aggressive, violent, or disruptive behavior
  • Defiant, irritable, or resistant behavior


Challenges for Educators in Understanding Characteristics of Trauma in their Students

The inconsistency in behaviors and the ability to regulate emotions and perform academically that results when the trauma response or self-protective mechanisms are activated can be confusing to adults. This confusion often leads to erroneous beliefs such as the student is “doing it on purpose to irritate me; he could control himself if he wanted to.” Generally, the opposite is true. In fact, most behaviors are a result of triggers that activate past experiences and responses ingrained in students for the purposes of survival. For educators, it can be important to remember that when demands exceed skill level, due either to the characteristics of a particular developmental stage or the impact of trauma, disengagement, quitting, and challenging behaviors arise. Many students cannot simply “leave it at the door,” as some teachers expect.

Acquiring an awareness of the variety of trauma manifestations that can potentially occur in the classroom empowers educators to cope more skillfully and effectively with the challenges to teaching and learning we face every day. Changing our understanding about the origins of behavior can help educators amend their beliefs and assumptions about their students. Behaviors we see in the classroom were often adopted by our students for some survival purpose. In some specific context, at some point in time, these behaviors served to protect the students and facilitate their survival, although the nature of the behaviors may not serve them in the context of the classroom. However, to expect children and adolescents to give up these behaviors by telling them they are maladaptive, often engenders incredulity and distrust.

The fact remains that we do not know where our students have come from and what they must go home to every day after school. Validating students’ experience means acknowledging their reality, including the need for this behavioral response. Validating is not the same as condoning, but it communicates respect and the desire to understand the student’s experience. This, in turn, builds connection and trust, creating an opportunity to introduce new response patterns and guide student choices about developing alternate behaviors for the classroom. Acknowledging that learning does not occur in a vacuum frees educators to direct energy towards relationship-building, the foundation that makes all learning possible.

Posted:  30 June, 2022
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Author: Jennifer De Lapp

Jennifer Everett De Lapp is a former high school special education teacher for students with mild /moderate disabilities including learning disabilities, autism, and emotional and behavioral...

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