Education and the Child of Trauma


Oftentimes it is the family that is the primary source of trauma. It has been estimated that more than 250,000 students are attacked in school each month. The following paper was written to assist school systems in gaining a better knowledge of the child with a trauma history within the educational environment. This paper is written from the premise that the primary task of the educational system is to provide children with appropriately based cognitive experiences. It must be understood that cognitive education is generally the primary responsibility of schools with social and emotional learning as a by-product to the direct learning environment provided.

Early Exposure to Trauma

The early exposure to traumatic experience, especially during the time frame from conception to age three, exposes the developing neurophysiologic system to what can be termed as “arrested emotional development.” The environment of calm interaction between parent and child is necessary to the successful development of the brain/body tools for emotional regulation (the state of calm functioning). When this is absent, the normal and healthy developmental experiences are missed. This absence of calm interaction creates a response of chronic stress and the child is essentially left without soothing. In this manner, the developing child continuously experiences stress during the time when he should be experiencing calm interaction. The resulting outcome is an individual system poorly equipped for tolerating and managing stressful environments. Due to the stimulating environment minus the parent figure, school can be a highly stressful experience for such children.

In addition, it is not the feeling of stress triggered by the stressful environment, but rather the emotional state of fear. The brain and body respond to stress inwardly, but this translates cognitively into fear, which triggers the fight, flight or freeze response. The specific receptor in the limbic system equipped for responding to threats is the amygdala. The amygdala responds automatically to any manner of threat. For example, in a situation where a child becomes scared, a fear reaction occurs immediately. This is an automatic reaction of the amygdala. Conversely, the hippocampus is the area of the limbic system responsible for determining how stressful the situation truly is. In this manner, the hippocampus acts as the fear regulator, the component ultimately responsible for effective stress regulation. The hippocampus then communicates to the rational area of the brain and makes the decision whether to calm down, fight, freeze, or flee. The hippocampus allows the child to think in the midst of the experience, “Well, maybe this is not so scary after all.” Therefore the child calms down and is no longer frightened.

Brain research leads us to believe that the amygdala forms while still in utero. The hippocampus, on the other hand, is developing throughout the critical early period of infancy. In this manner, if the environment has been overly stressful and lacks effective parental regulation at an early age, the hippocampus becomes stagnated in its growth. Hence, the term “arrested emotional development.” Ultimately, this leads to an amygdala that pours out stress and a hippocampus that is so poorly developed that it is unable to determine to any successful degree, how stressful the event may truly be. As a result, the stress and relating fear escalate, and the rational processes become confused and distorted. Bruce Perry has referred to such a state in children as an “amygdala hijacking.” The amygdala pumps out stress and fear in an uncontrollable manner, and the child is essentially held hostage to his own neurophysiology.

As this child continues to grow, his emotional system remains under arrest. This continues until an environment conducive to constant regulation has been provided. Once such an environment has been provided, the slow, tedious process of reparative stress interaction begins to occur. In this manner, the developing system begins to learn some degree of emotional regulation throughout each day. Overly stressful interactions send this highly sensitive system rapidly back into old patterns of chronic, intensified fear, triggered from the stress reaction. For example, the inmate is let out of jail on probation under constant supervision and positive interaction; however, with any lack in supervision the highly sensitive inmate is quickly drawn into the wrong crowd, and before long ends up back in jail. This prospect of providing an environment conducive to constant regulation becomes increasingly difficult for parents, and over time the supervision becomes lax and the interaction not nearly as positive, therefore the developing system is rarely allotted the necessary environment to overcome the powerful effects of the early trauma (stress) exposure.

School Time Challenges

Eventually, the child becomes of school age. The operative word being school “age”. Due to the effects of the early traumatic (stress) environment, the child’s emotional ability is nowhere near the appropriately functioning ability of a school-ready child. Placing this child in school induces a stress reaction that proves to be nothing more than threatening for the immature system at this time. The constant state of stress translates into fear, which surfaces as hyperactivity, defiance, anger, and poor peer relations, among others behavioral characteristics. This continues to escalate throughout the school years until, in such an environment, the child with a cognitive age of twelve is interacting from an emotional perspective anywhere from two to maybe six years of age. This is all dependent on the environment in which he is currently being nurtured and guided in his development.

Over time, this lack of ability to feel calm within the school environment will begin to take its toll on all involved, including parents, teachers, and peers, but most of all the student himself. At this point the thought of school becomes a stress provoking event because his parents are stressed about receiving calls everyday and negative reports, the teachers are frustrated with this immature child, and the other peers have began bullying the child because he responds in highly inappropriate ways to what is considered typical childhood teasing. The child, however, is responding exactly the way a child of his emotional age would, with extreme ranges of sadness, anger, and threatening behavior. In the classroom, the perceived threatening environment causes the child to react in fear. He may become violent or highly oppositional, completely resistant to following through on any manner of request.

Working as a Team for Development

The school and parents must work together to provide the environment most conducive for the child. In my work with students that present such an overwhelming discrepancy between emotional and cognitive age, a number of changes must be initiated.

First, it must be stated that emotional growth and development are not the primary motives of the educational system. The primary motive is education. Education is highly applicable to cognitive ability, but it is not conducive to emotional learning. Emotional learning must initiate within the family system; however, it can be greatly supported and enhanced by the school system, and vice versa. Second, the family is the center of our educational and emotional development, so with proper support and encouragement from the family system, the student will be better prepared to receive the expertise offered from the educational system.

Specific recommendations for children with a trauma history have been established to assist them in receiving the most appropriate environment conducive to stimulating their emotional development within the capabilities of the school and family. It must be recognized that without the development of the emotional regulatory ability, most school experiences for this child will be a negative. The following are suggestions for helping the child with a trauma history have more success within the educational learning environment:

  • Modified School Schedule: A modified school schedule may be presented to assist the child in receiving the highest level of educational exposure within the range of his emotional tolerance. This schedule would have the child attending school on a half-day schedule. Areas such as homework and class projects would be best completed in the home environment with the parent’s presence. The proposed, modified schedule will keep stressors at a minimum, hence enabling the child to utilize the cognitive skill capacities which this child is able to demonstrate during less stressful times. It is not uncommon for a child with a trauma history to demonstrate high intelligence when the environment is one of calm interaction and allows the child to fully access his cognitive ability.
  • Reduced Peer Interaction: Reduced peer interaction for this child may perhaps prove to be the most beneficial modification to aid in his developmental improvement. Often times, a child with a trauma history will be the target of bullying or taunting. Being relieved of an environment in which emotional bullying can be at its worst, will allow this child to function in the least restrictive environment, eliminating the stress stemming from the emotions of fear, shame, and anger. Peer contact defined as lunchtime, physical education, recess, etc.
  • Daily, Consistent, One on One Mentoring: A one to one mentor will provide the child with a secure figure within which he can develop a sense of trust, security and dependence. Independence for this child is counter indicated. The relationship development with such a person can create an environment for corrective emotional experiences with a trusted figure outside of the primary caregiver.
  • Secure, Low-Stimulus Environment: A low-stimulus environment will maintain the child in an environment of minimal stressors. Due to the sensitive nature of this child’s Stress Response System, the lower the external stimulus the more opportunity the child has to maintain a state of regulation, hence, calm. This state of neurophysiologic functioning is pertinent to the success of this child in the formal educational environment.
  • High Structure: Structure with minimal change provides the child an opportunity to acclimate to the expectations of the coming school day and maintain resonance and regulation gained throughout the previous evening and night rest cycle.
  • Interactive Communication: The one to one mentor must be proactive in using a.) tone of voice that is firm yet non-threatening, b.) ensuring the understanding of communication through requesting and gaining eye contact, c.) providing the child with non-threatening physical expressions such as hugs, pats, head rubs, etc. These seemingly standard actions are oftentimes underrated when working with children. These gestures further enable the child to develop trust and dependence, which will be pertinent factors in situations of stress.
  • Counseling Sessions within the Educational Setting: Weekly sessions will allow all involved to monitor progress, set goals, and assist the child in developing guided imagery techniques and appropriate methods of emotional expression.
  • Daily Telephone Contact from the Parent: Daily contact will maximize the child’s ability to maintain regulatory functioning throughout the school day. Contact with the primary caregiver will provide the child with an added sense of security while in the educational environment. Daily contact with the one on one mentor will initiate a rapport between the school and the home, which will greatly improve collaboration and communication.

In Summary

Though it may appear to the untrained eye that such changes may further jeopardize the educational growth of this student, this assumption could not be further from the need for developmental appropriateness. The modification to this child’s current educational exposure will assist greatly in his ability to develop the skills necessary to better utilize his cognitive abilities when placed in emotionally stressful situations. As this child continues to function in the least restrictive environment created for maintained emotional regulation, his cognitive ability will be allowed to function without the constant interference of stress overload. As the time between highly stressful events becomes longer his brain will be allotted an opportunity for development. This aspect of development within the limbic system is ultimately responsible for stress regulation and the effective use of cognitive ability. Determining such progress can be assessed incrementally and over time, through much the same means as with other children. Such measure might include reporting by those directly involved in the student’s activities, the assessment of completion of required educational tasks, and occasional comparison testing in such unstructured tasks as handwriting.

It may possibly be feasible to begin to reintroduce this student into the full-time environment within a six-month time frame, with close monitoring. When this time nears, it is highly recommended that an IEP meeting be held to determine appropriate degrees of introduction and the assurance that consistent monitoring will take place.

School time experiences for all children are valuable learning opportunities. Unfortunately for children with trauma histories, school can also become a very negative experience which only serves to keep them in their current state of arrested emotional development. Take the time to assess the history of this child and make the appropriate modifications to their school learning experience.