Tips for Trauma Recovery in the Early Years

By: Kylie Buckley, Naomi Gilbertsen, Amy Murphy


When a child experiences trauma, most teachers are uncertain and uneducated on how to assist the child effectively; some teachers have no idea on what steps to take to help the child. It’s important for teachers to gain an understanding of trauma and learn the steps to provide assistance to the children who have been exposed to traumatic stressors. Teachers who are educated on the trauma-informed approaches have an advantage when it comes to supporting the students and providing them with a supportive learning environment.

young African American boy sitting on knees on carpet, smiling with hand up to face. Child is wearing a blue shirt and apron with purple handprints on it

Photo taken by Amy Murphy

What is Trauma?

Trauma can be defined as experiencing an event or certain circumstances in which an individual’s (in this case, a child’s) emotional state is overwhelmed and the individual or someone in the individual’s life feels that their life and/or integrity is threatened. Depending on the stage of development and age of an individual, the perception of and how an individual deals with trauma can vary (Georgetown University 2000). It is important to note that the event does not need to be directed specifically at the child or violent for the event to be considered trauma by the child who experienced or witnessed the event. Trauma can be and is not limited to physical, psychological, or
sexual abuse (McInerney and McKlindon 2014).

Who is Affected by Trauma?

Trauma affects children from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. Children from low socioeconomic households and in urban environments experience more violence which can lead to experiencing higher rates of trauma (McInerney and McKlindon 2014). In 2015, over half of children in public schools lived in poverty and of this half, about 50-80 percent had experienced trauma (Izard 2016). Experiencing trauma during childhood can have a direct and immediate effect on the ability of a child to learn in and outside of school. The brain develops into adulthood and there are crucial times for development which occur during early childhood. Due to this, experiencing trauma during childhood can largely impact the brain by interfering with the peak times of development resulting in delays in emotional and social development as well as physical and cognitive losses that impact children’s behavior, personality development, and body functions.

African American boy with a smile from ear to ear holding a spork that he added pipe cleaners and googly eyes to make his own crating of Forky from the new Toy Story movie.

Photo taken by Amy Murphy

How Trauma Affects Students in the Classroom

Childhood trauma is a common occurrence. About half of preschool aged children experience emotional, physical, and/or sexual trauma in their short lifetimes. The types of trauma they may experience are neglect, abuse, or witnessing a traumatic event. Exposure to trauma can have detrimental effects on students in the classroom, affecting their academic achievement.

Trauma manifests itself in the classroom in many ways. Students may exhibit behaviors such as the inability to concentrate, lashing out, not following classroom expectations, incapable of regulating their emotions, and potentially developing mental disorders. All these factors have lasting implications on student’s educational success, such as low academic achievement and poor grades. Traumatic events also hinder students’ physical, emotional, social, and academic development. The more teachers understand how these traumatic events affect students learning in the classroom, the more proactive teachers can be in creating a learning environment that supports children with trauma. There are several support systems and interventions that teachers can utilize in their classrooms for supporting children affected by trauma.

Related Legislation

Social and emotional learning (SEL) refers to a wide range of skills, attitudes, and behaviors that can affect a student’s success in school and life. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies five competencies of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Under the federal law, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states may decide to account for the social and emotional learning happening in their schools, and to use the data they collect to make future decisions about the best way to support schools. The Ohio Early Learning and Development Standards (2017) include SEL competencies/standards from birth through kindergarten entry. Ohio has also developed SEL standards from kindergarten through 12th grade. Ohio’s Social and Emotional Learning Standards provide the developmental progression for kindergarten through 12th grade, recognizing that the developmental progression of social and emotional learning standards is contextually and culturally dependent.

Columbus City Schools embed the five competencies of Social Emotional Learning in their curricula which are self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, decision-making skills, and relationship building skills. Here’s how teachers can use these five competencies in their classrooms:

  •  Teachers use reflective questions and language that will allow students to self-regulate their behavior and performance.
  •  Teachers provide time, space, activities, and opportunities for students to deescalate and/or self-monitor behavior and emotions.

    African American boy tracing around his hand with a pencil on a piece of paper while sitting at a table.

    Photo taken by Amy Murphy

  • Teachers incorporate the use of a decision-making process for students to apply to an academic or social situation or activity to be addressed.
  •  Teachers provide opportunities for students to collaborate with others.
  •  Teachers address, teach, and support the development of students’ collaboration skills.


Techniques Teachers Can Use in the Classroom

The key to helping students with trauma is having teachers who are willing to invest in their students. Teachers cannot expect changes to happen overnight and must be consistent and persistent with the techniques they are using. Students will know their teacher is invested when they are seeing and experiencing regular schedules and predictable routines. Teachers who are invested in student well-being can create a safe environment of trust and respect for all. It is not healthy, for students or teachers, to hear and say, “Get out!” when a negative behavior has presented itself in the classroom environment. Not only does it affect the student displaying the behavior but the culture of the class itself.

The teachers can begin establishing relationships with their student’s on day one. The teacher can do this by asking the children upon arrival each school day, “How would like to be greeted?”, and give them options; for example, handshake, high-five, and bear hug. Through this exercise, the students get a sense of connection with the teacher, that will become a predictable morning routine. When the teacher is making eye contact and greeting each student individually a safe environment is being built that encompasses the feeling of being safe and respected. The students have a sense of ownership when getting to choose how they want to be greeted each morning. In many instances, the students do not have much ownership of their choices outside of the classroom setting, so providing students with opportunities where they feel that they are in charge of their choices helps to build a strong relationship with the teacher.

Photo taken by Amy Murphy

Teachers can give students many opportunities to express themselves. Teachers should allow students to use the arts to express their learning (music, poetry, dance, and art). The arts offer the students freedom of expression in a safe environment that allows the student to evoke their emotions safely and positively in a trusted and safe environment.

The YCP (Youth Culture Power) expresses the importance of C.A.R.E. in the classroom environment. Teachers should be embracing the culture of the students that are present in the classroom to create an affable learning environment. Building and maintaining positive relationships with the students in the classroom is a key part of this. It is integral to develop an egalitarian teaching style for YCP. Creating equal rights and opportunities for all students builds a stronger classroom that believes in fairness for all. The students will have greater learning success when they feel a part of their learning. It is important to show this by building upon the knowledge the students are already bringing into the classroom.

Becky Bailey’s four steps of the Brain Smart Start will help with building a strong classroom community. The first step is to unite with the students by having group activities for the students to participate together (saying a classroom pledge or moving together in music and movement). The second step is to connect with the students by having I Love You Rituals. I Love You Rituals consist of activities that provide acceptance, hand motions, touch, and positive messages to each student. The third step is to disengage stress by incorporating deep breathing techniques. These deep breathing techniques can be carried with the student to any aspect of the day. The deep breathing could also help a student self-regulate during a stressful time outside of the Brain Start Smart time. The fourth and final step is commitment where the teacher ensures the students that their job is to keep them safe, secure, and respected.

Classroom Suggestions

Photo taken by Amy Murphy

Students need a safe place in the classroom that allows them to go and deescalate themselves. The teacher can allow time for the students to participate in brain breaks. Providing the students with brain breaks throughout the day will promote optimal learning, as well as help restore order in the classroom. The brain breaks can either energize or relax students depending on what the student/students in the classroom are needing at that time. During these brain breaks there is a boost in the blood flow which helps with bringing oxygen to the brain. Deep breathing can be used to realign a class that needs to relax, or a 3-minute dance party could energize a class that needs a boost.

In this space, it is essential to provide the students with tools that will help assist them in deescalating.

  • Bubbles
  • Pinwheels
  • Thera putty
  • Squishy balls
  • Family photos of the students with their family
  • Mirrors and pictures of expressions
  • Rhythmic music

Recommended Resources

  • Big Brother Big Sister of Central Ohio, 1855 E Dublin-Granville Road Columbus, Ohio 43229 – Phone (614)839-2447: The community-based program matches children who are facing adversity with a supportive mentor. The program has had many successes with pairing mentors with their littles. This is a program to be a part of if you have the time and commitment to mentor a child. This is also a great program to refer to your students who need a mentor that can follow them through their school years and beyond.

    Teacher sitting on carpet reading to 5 Children around her in a circle.

    Photo taken by Amy Murphy

  • Donorschoose is a nonprofit organization that allows individuals to donate directly to public school classroom projects that teachers create. This would be a great opportunity for teachers to get items for the classroom that would help them with the students in their classroom. Public schools do not always have the means or access to materials that would help with the students in the classroom. would be a great way to get flexible seating that the teacher would not otherwise be able to get.
  • Serenity Salt Spa 5951 S. Sunbury Rd. Westerville, Ohio 43081 614-686-SALT (7258): Serenity Salt Spa brings halotherapy to central Ohio. The salt cave is said to naturally draw out toxins and impurities out of the body along with a multitude of other health benefits. It sounds like a great place to go either alone or with a group of teachers. Teachers have to put their health first and the salt spa sounds like a great way to get started. The prices seem to be reasonable and they even offer package deals.
  • Columbus Commons 160 South High Street Columbus, Ohio 43215: The Columbus Commons offers free fitness classes, all you have to do is fill out the waiver. The fitness classes are offered during the week in the evening hours and late morning sessions on the weekend. This would be another great opportunity to get together with your fellow teachers to release some stress while taking care of your body.

Effects on Teachers

Working with students who have experienced traumatic events can make the teacher more susceptible to secondary traumatic stress. Helping a student cope with the effects of trauma could affect the teacher as well. It’s extremely important for teachers to take care of themselves. A healthy teacher is more prone to be an effective teacher. Working with students who have been exposed to trauma can be a lot on a teacher. The teacher should incorporate regular exercise, a healthy diet, and sufficient sleep in their schedules. It’s beneficial for teachers to take time for themselves to be the best versions of themselves as well as the best teacher they can be.

Glossary and Key Terms

  • Brain Smart Start: creating a classroom community 1. Unite, 2. Connect, 3. Disengage Stress, and 4. Commitment (Bailey, 2001).
  • C.A.R.E.: the model for youth culture power; C. for culture (embrace the culture), A. for affability (create an affable learning environment), R. for relationships (build and maintain positive relationships), E. for egalitarian (develop egalitarian teaching styles) (Rawls & Robinson, 2009).
  • Every Student Succeeds Act: the main law for K-12 public education in the United States. ESSA aims to make sure public schools provide equal education for all kids (Lee, n.d.).
  • Social Emotional Learning: the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (“What is SEL?”, 2019).
  • Trauma: experiencing an event or certain circumstances in which an individual’s emotional state is overwhelmed and the individual or someone in the individual’s life feels that their life and/or integrity is threatened (“Defining Trauma”, n.d.).
  • The Ohio Early Learning and Development Standards: describe key concepts and skills that young children develop during the birth-to-five-year period (“Birth Through Kindergarten Entry- Learning and Development Standards”, 2019).