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The Hidden Story of Childhood Trauma

Updated: Jun 11, 2019

There is nothing new about the presence of children with trauma in our schools; frequently without realizing it, educators have been dealing with the impact of trauma for generations . What is new is that trauma and specifically, brain researchers can now explain the hidden story behind many classroom difficulties that hamper our educational systems. The notion that school can lessen the effects of trauma is supported by research from both developmental psychologists brain researchers and trauma experts. According to researchers, a trauma-sensitive school environment can help traumatized children forge strong relationships with caring adults and promote deep learning in a supportive environment . Teachers play an important role by connecting traumatized children to a safe and predictable school community and enabling them to become competent learners (Cole et al., 2005).


Scholars contend that adolescents early life experiences greatly influence their early development. Research indicates that because most brain development occurs when the brain is most “plastic,” that is, during a child’s early months and years, traumatic experiences—such as poverty, abuse, neglect, and violence—during those early years profoundly impact and limit brain development . Physiological changes to the developing brain in response to trauma cause cognitive losses and delays in physical, emotional, and social development, and they provoke emotional and behavioral responses that interfere with children’s learning, school engagement, and academic success (Harvard University, 2007).


Trauma affects children’s ability or willingness to form relationships with classmates and teachers; children who have experienced trauma may be distrustful or suspicious of others, leading them to question the reliability and predictability of their relationships. The ability or again, the willingness to develop social supports drastically impacts a child’s ability to overcome stressful situations. Research also indicates that children who have been exposed to violence often have difficulty responding to social cues, and they may withdraw from social situations or bully others (van der Kolk, 2003). Further, children who have been physically abused have been found to engage in less intimate peer relationships and tend to be more aggressive and negative in peer interactions (Margolin & Gordis, 2000).


According to Felitti et al. (1998), as the number of traumatic events experienced during childhood increases, so does the risk for serious health problems in adulthood, and people who experienced trauma in childhood are: 15 times more likely to attempt suicide 4 times more likely to become an alcoholic 4 times more likely to develop a sexually transmitted disease 4 times more likely to inject drugs 3 times more likely to use antidepressant medication 3 times more likely to be absent from work 3 times more likely to experience depression 3 times more likely to have serious job problems 2 .5 times more likely to smoke 2 times more likely to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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