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

Some students show signs of stress in the first few weeks after a trauma, but return to their usual state of physical and emotional health. Even an adolescent who does not exhibit serious symptoms may experience some degree of emotional distress, and for some adolescents this distress may continue or even deepen over a long period of time.

Some traumatic experiences occur once in a lifetime, others are ongoing. Many adolescents have experienced multiple traumas, and for too many adolescents trauma is a chronic part of their lives. Students who have experienced traumatic events may experience problems that impair their day-to-day functioning.

Be alert to the behavior of students who have experienced one of these events. Be aware of both the adolescents who act out AND the quiet adolescents who don’t appear to have behavioral problems. These students often “fly beneath the radar” and do not get help. They may have symptoms of avoidance and depression that are just as serious as those of the acting out student. Try your best to take the adolescent’s traumatic experiences into consideration when dealing with acting out behaviors.

  • Feeling depressed or alone

  • Developing eating disorders and self-harming behaviors

  • Beginning to abuse alcohol or drugs

  • Becoming sexually active

  • Learning problems, including lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions

    • Increased use of health services, including mental health services
    • Increased involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems
    • Long term health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease
  • Anxiety, fear, and worry about safety of self and others

  • Worry about recurrence or consequences of violence

  • Changes in behavior

    • Withdrawal from others or activities
    • Irritability with friends, teachers, events
    • Angry outbursts and/or aggression
    • Change in academic performance
    • Decreased attention and/or concentration
    • Increase in activity level
    • Absenteeism
    • Increase in impulsivity, risk-taking behavior
    • Discomfort with feelings (such as troubling thoughts of revenge)
    • Increased risk for substance abuse
    • Discussion of events and reviewing of details
    • Negative impact on issues of trust and perceptions of others
    • Over- or under-reacting to bells, physical contact, doors slamming, sirens, lighting, sudden movements
    • Repetitive thoughts and comments about death or dying (including suicidal thoughts, writing, art, or notebook covers about violent or morbid topics, internet searches)
    • Heightened 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 event)
    • Emotional numbing (e.g., seeming to have no feeling about the event)

From the child_trauma_toolkit_educators.pdf by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. www.NCTSN.org This project was funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Quick Wins

The following are evidence-based strategies that can be used in the classroom to diffused

Having an adult with whom the student feels safe is extremely important. A trusted adult acts as a sounding board, a mentor, and an anchor which helps the student feel grounded. Especially for middle school students—who already feel out of control because of their physical and hormonal changes—having someone who can help them gain control of themselves and their situations goes a long way to minimizing negative behavior.

Structure, order, and familiar routines help students feel safe. They know what to expect so they feel a sense of control of their surroundings and of themselves.

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

  • Sense of purpose
  • Agency (self-efficacy)
  • Self-regulation skills
  • Relational skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Involvement in positive activities


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.


Students are often the first responders when one of their peers exhibits symptoms of trauma. Training students to support their peers is highly effective, particularly because by high school many students are wary of adults for a variety of reasons. Students have shared experiences and a shared language that adults often do not understand.

Resource: https://www.wvsadd.org/index.html

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.

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


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