What is Trauma?

Trauma – A psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. Trauma often affects the way the brain works, impairing neurophysiological, psychological, and cognitive functioning.


Types of Trauma

  • Sexual Abuse or Assault

  • Physical Abuse or Assault
  • Emotional Abuse/Psychological Maltreatment

  • Neglect

  • Serious Accident or Illness/Medical Procedure

  • Witness to Domestic Violence

  • Victim/Witness to Community Violence

  • School Violence

  • Natural or Manmade Disasters

  • Forced Displacement

  • War/Terrorism/Political Violence

  • Victim/Witness to Extreme Personal/Interpersonal Violence

  • Traumatic Grief/Separation

  • System-Induced Trauma

Signs & Symptoms

Young children suffering from trauma may not know how, or have the words, to explain what they are feeling and experiencing. They may be unaware that they are behaving a certain way, or feeling angry, sad, or anxious. With pre-school and kindergarten children it can be difficult to identify trauma, particularly since trauma can be expressed in many forms. However, there are some common behavioral changes—especially if they are sudden—that signal trauma

  • Anxiety, fear, and worry about safety of self and others (clingier with teacher or parent)

    • Worry about recurrence of violence
    • Increased distress (unusually whiny, irritable, moody)
  • Changes in behavior:

    • Increase in activity level
    • Decreased attention and/or concentration
    • Withdrawal from others or activities
    • Angry outbursts and/or aggression
    • Absenteeism
    • Distrust of others, affecting how children interact with both adults and peers
    • A change in ability to interpret and respond appropriately to social cues
    • Increased somatic complaints (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, overreaction to minor bumps and bruises)
  • Changes in school performance

  • Recreating the event (e.g., repeatedly talking about, “playing” out, or drawing the event)

  • Over- or under-reacting to bells, physical contact, doors slamming, sirens, lighting, sudden movements

  • Statements and questions about death and dying

  • Difficulty with authority, redirection, or criticism

  • Re-experiencing the trauma (e.g., nightmares or disturbing memories during the day)

  • Hyper-arousal (e.g., sleep disturbance, tendency to be easily startled)

  • Avoidance behaviors (e.g., resisting going to places that remind them of the trauma they have experienced)

Quick Wins

The following are evidence-based strategies that can be used in the classroom. In addition, please note that https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/ has a full line of resources for almost type of experience: family homelessness, foster care, dealing with divorce, resilience, traumatic experiences, and many more.

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder have greater difficulties coping with unstructured time than neuro-typical people and benefit from increased structure in their lives. Since most things in life do not happen in the same order or at the same time every day, students may exhibit behavior problems when unexpected changes occur. Using a visual schedule can develop a positive routine of looking for information and thus increase flexibility and the ability to cope with life’s ups and downs in the future.


Calming Areas Overview and Ideas

A Calming Area is a quiet area of the room equipped with soothing materials and furnishings to help a student de-escalate and / or practice self-management when upset. This short document includes guidelines and photos. SOURCE: Dallas Independent School District

Resource: https://drc.casel.org/uploads/sites/3/2019/04/Calming-Areas-Overview-and-Ideas.pdf

Read books about feelings with your students. For example,

The Feelings Book by Todd Parr for PreK-K.

“Bold, kid-friendly illustrations portray children expressing all different moods, from “I feel very mad” to “I feel like wearing funny underwear.” With candor and special attention to the changing emotions of a child, the book highlights familiar feelings. Kids and adults alike will appreciate the modern, vibrant illustrations and the honesty of the author’s words.” – Scholastic Publishers

A House for Hermit Crab
Grades 1

“Children struggling with change will find reassurance in this gentle, original fable from bestselling and award-winning author Eric Carle.” – Scholastic Publishers

Molly Lou Melon: Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon
Grades K – 2

“Molly Lou Melon is short and clumsy and has buckteeth and a voice that sounds like a bullfrog being squeezed by a boa constrictor. But armed with the encouraging words of her grandmother, Molly Lou confidently confronts the class bully at her new school. A not-to-be missed story for the less-than-perfect part of everyone!” – Scholastic Publishers

The Word Collector
Grades K – 2

“From the creator of The Dot comes a celebration of finding your own words—and the impact you can have when you share them with the world.” – Scholastic Publishers


This video guides children through a breathing meditation by instructing them to imagine a sailboat that rises and falls as they breathe; with each inhale and exhale, the boat moves gently on top of the water.

They also get an opportunity to visualize their breath with a color and focus on the experience of their breath moving through their nostrils. Lastly, the video ends with the exercise of the children imagining (with their eyes closed) that they used to be a fish and paying attention to how it would feel to breathe through their lungs for the first time.


Ask, “What happened?” instead of “What is wrong with you?”

The teacher will decide the “framed choices” but empower the student with choice or in what order to complete.

Slow down, use a calm voice, and create an atmosphere of peace

Long Term Solutions

Make Connections: Watch to make sure that one child is not being isolated. Encourage students to make friends with their peers. Connecting with people provides social support and strengthens resilience.

Help your students by having them help others: Children who may feel helpless can be empowered by helping others. Engage children in age-appropriate volunteer work, or ask for assistance yourself with some task that he or she can master. Brainstorm with children about ways they can help others.

Maintain a daily routine: Encourage students to develop and stick to their own personal routines, since they can be comforting to children, especially younger children who crave structure in their lives.

Teach your students self-care: Explain to your students how eating properly, getting enough sleep, learning to relax, and having fun can help them feel better.


The broad purpose of PBIS is to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and equity of schools and other agencies. PBIS improves social, emotional and academic outcomes for all students, including students with disabilities and students from underrepresented groups.

Resource: http://wvpbis.org/

Add social-emotinal learning to your toolbox. CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has an online platform that offers step-by-step guidance and field-tested tools to help school teams implement high-quality SEL. (Jan 2019). In addition there are numerous resources that can be used or adapted to individual classrooms.

Resource: https://casel.org/resources-support/

Create a trauma-informed compassionate classroom; provides a trusted environment where students feel safe, connected, and among trusted adults


WVDE Disclaimer

Please Note: Links to resources outside the West Virginia Department of Education’s website do not constitute an endorsement by the WVDE. Users should vet linked resources to meet audience needs.