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The Effects of Trauma on a Child's Academic Performance

August 29, 2017


As we approach the first day of school, unavoidable emotions from both parents and children arise.

 Whether it be anxiousness from the child with certain questions running through their mind such as, who will my teachers be, will I be in the same class with friends, who will I eat lunch with, etc.?, or the parent’s whose tears are falling from their eyes as their little ones wave goodbye, or let’s face it those parents who are doing the happy dance because they will finally have that much needed time alone.  The day is guaranteed to be marked with some pretty intense emotions.  


I was told by my daughter that the first day of school brings excitement and most of her friends do not go to sleep the night before.  The reasons for this as she states is due to wanting to know what each other is wearing.  From the minds of teenagers.


Now let’s consider the following situation:

Jason is 11 years old, in the sixth grade and lives with his mother, and father.  His father is an alcoholic who often comes home in a drunken rage.  Unfortunately, Jason receives the brunt of his father’s anger and aggression.  Jason’s home environment is full of chaos between his parents physical and verbal expressions.  Jason can’t help to think that this is all his fault and desperately wants to figure out how to fix the issues at home.


Jason’s look at the first day of school is quite different from the normal developing child.  Jason’s thoughts of the first day of school is impacted by trauma.  Instead of the normal questions most children his age face, Jason goes to school worrying about his mother and figuring out ways to protect her, in addition to feeling that the problems at home are all his fault.  Jason may be one out of 6 children in his class who has experienced violence or abuse within his home.  Jason’s teacher is not aware of the detailed history of any of her students.  She has very good intentions, but often struggles to build a successful learning environment for challenging children such as Jason.


Children who have experienced trauma demonstrate difficulties in the capacity to regulate physiological and emotional experience.  They may have difficulty understanding what they feel, where it comes from, how to cope with it, and/or how to express it.  Children may show early lags in receptive and expressive language, as well as difficulty with sustained attention and concentration.  Over time, children show delays and impairments in executive functioning, including planning, problem solving, organization, and delaying response.  Children who have experienced trauma are at significantly higher risk for school disciplinary problems, grade retention, and dropping out.


It is important that educators and other school staff see behavior through a trauma lens.  Often times children such as Jason, are labeled with a disability such as, ODD, ADHD and placed in a smaller classroom setting with an IEP and medicated.   Although measures that are put in place  would likely result in the solution to the child’s behavior problems, are often met with future behavioral issues because the root of the problem is not properly addressed.   It would benefit the child if staff would take the time to find out what is happening by engaging the child in a way that is helpful, and always asking the question, “Is there something being overlooked?”`


Children who experience trauma have difficulty regulating their emotions when confronted by signals of danger, and are left with no choice but to rely on a range of behaviors and strategies that help them cope with internal and external experiences.  Common strategies include the following:

  • Emotional numbing/constriction

  • Withdrawal/avoidance of others

  • Hypercontrol of the environment/rigidity

  • Self-injury

  • Sensation-seeking behaviors

  • Aggressive or other externalizing behaviors

  • Alterations in eating patterns

  • Substance use/abuse


It is important to help the child build skills and strategies for modulating internal experience--physiological, emotional, and behavioral.  A classroom setting may consider adding a basket of hand-held manipulatives such as stress balls for student use as a way of supporting physiological regulation.  You can find a great resource to alternatives to detention and punishment for both parents and educators here.


“A thing which has not been understood inevitably reappears like an unlaid ghost it cannot rest until the mystery has been solved and the spell broken”-Sigmund Freud


What will you do in your classroom to help those students like Jason have a successful transition to the first day of school?




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