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Complex or developmental trauma usually results from exposure to multiple traumatic events and when children experience a chronic loss of safety. When traumatic experiences occur early in life many aspects of development are disrupted and result in a loss of core cognitive, interpersonal, and self-regulation capacities. Seven primary domains of impairment are observed in children exposed to developmental trauma. Children experience developmental impairment because of relying on coping that allow them to survive and function day-to-day, but do not serve them well in the long-term. There are many ways in which these developmental impairments show up in classroom behavior.

Domains of Impairment

Seven Primary Domains of Impairment

Classroom Behavior

Classroom Behavior

Traumatized children can experience fear or a loss of safety even when no apparent danger is imminent. For such children, their brain and behavior are ruled by their stress response systems (their feeling brain) rather than by their cortex (their thinking brain). These children can appear to be either hyperaroused (hyperactive and over-reactive) or hypoaroused (spaced out and disengaged). Both of these states are physiological states, automatic responses to stress that are outside the child's control.

These behavioral challenges are not the result of poor choices. Instead, they are the result of the student's exposure to toxic levels of stress and the inability to manage that stress. On low stress days the student may be able to display expected classroom behaviors, but on high stress days that same student may respond to small changes or challenges in the classroom with defiant, aggressive, or dissociative behaviors. This inconsistency challenges of the student's understanding of herself, and challenges the teacher's ability to meet her educational needs and maintain control of the classroom.

Triggers: Teachers can begin by recognizing events that frequently act as triggers for children coping with trauma. Triggers are anything that remind the student of a traumatic experience or make the student feel like there is a loss of emotional or physical safety.

Transitions: Transitions signal uncertainty, change, potentially unsafe situations, and loss of relationships. In their experience, “minor” transitions have turned into major ones – such as being picked up at the end of a school day expecting to return home, but being moved to a new foster home. The following transitions may be difficult for students with a trauma history:

​Relationships: Children with histories of chronic trauma many develop a generalized fear that people are a source of harm, have difficulty interpreting social cues, and often feel isolated and different from their peers. They will likely respond to teachers and peers with distrust and behaviors aimed at distancing themselves from others.

Emotional intensity & any physical intimidation: It is very common for children with histories of trauma to equate even mild sternness of tone with yelling and to associate yelling with violence. Such intensity should be avoided; it is important  for authority figures to project calm, open acceptance of the student and his feelings – even when his behavior is unacceptable. Likewise, authority figures must be careful to give no appearance of physical intimidation.

Trauma anniversaries: Anniversaries may lead to a season of disturbance, as the child ramps up behavior as the date approaches, and then slowly recovers afterwards. Students who are able to identify and talk about anniversaries of trauma may be able to help caregivers and teachers predict problematic time periods. However, traumatic memories are commonly stored as implicit rather than explicit memories, making them difficult for the child to retrieve and discuss or consciously anticipate.

Assignments: The student affected by trauma may be afraid of her own failure. Failure may confirm her own shame, born out of the belief that she must have deserved the bad things that happened to her. She may be equally afraid of her own success, either because it will raise expectations in others, or because success produces a strong sense of cognitive dissonance with her own deep sense of shame. Assignments that touch on the themes of death, separation, abandonment, loss, rifts in relationships, abuse, foster care, or adoption may trigger a student with a trauma history.

So what can educators do?

Provide safety, predictability, empathy, and stress management. Schools can incorporate techniques into daily routines that help all students manage their own stress, without singling out individual children.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network identified six core components of interventions for children coping with trauma:

Beginning or end of the day 

Period or activity changes

Substitutes, new teachers, teachers leaving

Any focus on the future, graduation, or growing-up

Field trips

End of semester or year

New students in class, or students leaving or 

   moving away 

Seven Primary Domains of Impairment


BRAIN & BODY: Repeated exposure to traumatic experiences interferes with the basic development and connections among neurons in the brain. Chronic exposure to traumatic stress also interferes with the integration of left and right hemisphere brain functioning, such that a child cannot access rational thought in the face of overwhelming emotion. Traumatized children are then inclined to react with extreme helplessness, confusion, withdrawal, or rage when stressed. They may also have a wide variety of medical problems, such as body pain, asthma, skin problems, autoimmune disorders, and pseudoseisures.


ATTACHMENT: When children are placed in situations where they feel that they have to take responsibility for their own safety, particularly when their caregiver is the source of trauma, they attempt to exert some control by disconnecting from social relationships or by acting aggressively towards. This may lead children to always be on the lookout for others who may threaten their safety; withholding their own emotions from others, never letting people see when they are afraid, sad, or angry. These children often have great difficulty regulating their emotions, managing stress, developing concern for others, and using language to solve problems. They often show an inability to regulate emotions without outside help or support.  


EMOTIONAL REGULATION: Children coping with trauma are easily-aroused and express high-intensity emotions, this is due to their low stress tolerance or a high base stress level.  These children often feel out of control because of their inability to identify their internal states of arousal and apply appropriate labels (e.g. "happy," “sad,” "frightened"). Because they have difficulty in both self-regulating and self-soothing, these children may display chronic numbing of emotions, pervasive depressed mood, avoidance of emotional situations (including positive experiences), and maladaptive coping strategies.


BEHAVIORAL REGULATION: Both under-controlled behaviors (such as aggressive or defiant behavior) and over-controlled behaviors (such as resistance to changes in routine) can develop as a way of coping with overwhelming stress and loss of safety. Children may appear to be self-destructive, aggressive toward others, or even over compliant.


DISSOCIATION: Dissociation is the failure to take in or integrate information and experiences. Thus, thoughts and emotions are disconnected, physical sensations are outside conscious awareness, and self-soothing repetitive behavior can take place without conscious choice or self-awareness. Dissociation begins as a protective mechanism in the face of overwhelming trauma. Chronic trauma exposure may lead to an over-reliance on dissociation as a coping mechanism, which then creates other behavioral and emotional regulation problems. Dissociation makes it difficult for children to concentrate in the classroom and remember was discussed.


THINKING & LEARNING: Because of impairment in domains 1 through 5, traumatized children show significant delays in expressive and receptive language development, abstract reasoning, problem solving, difficulty sustaining curiosity and attention, memory challenges due to distraction, misperception, and overwhelmed anxiety, and deficits in overall IQ.

SELF-CONCEPT: Having a safe and predictable environment and caregivers that are responsive and sensitive allow children to develop a sense of themselves as valued, worthy, and competent. Additionally, because of impairment in domains 1 through 6, traumatized children develop low self-esteem, feelings of shame and guilt, and generalized sense of being ineffective in dealing with their environment.


Six Core Components of Interventions for Children Coping with Trauma

SAFETY: Creating a school environment in which the child feels safe and cared for.


SELF-REGULATION: Enhancing a child’s capacity to modulate arousal and restore equilibrium following dysregulation of affect, behavior, physiology, cognition, interpersonal relatedness and self-attribution.

SELF-REFLECTIVE INFORMATION PROCESSING: Helping the child construct self-narratives, reflect on past and present experience, and develop skills in planning and decision making.

TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES INTEGRATION: Enabling the child to transform or resolve traumatic reminders and memories using such therapeutic strategies as meaning-making, traumatic memory containment or processing, remembrance and mourning of the traumatic loss, symptom management and development of coping skills, and cultivation of present-oriented thinking and behavior.

RELATIONAL ENGAGEMENT: Teaching the child to form appropriate attachments and to apply this knowledge to current interpersonal relationships, including the therapeutic alliance, with emphasis on development of such critical interpersonal skills as assertiveness, cooperation, perspective-taking, boundaries and limit-setting, reciprocity, social empathy, and the capacity for physical and emotional intimacy.


POSITIVE AFFECT ENHANCEMENT: Enhancing a child’s sense of self-worth, esteem and positive self-appraisal through the cultivation of personal creativity, imagination, future orientation, achievement, competence, mastery-seeking, community-building and the capacity to experience pleasure. 


Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., Blaustein, M.; Cloitre, M, DeRosa, R., Hubbard, R., Kagan, R., Liautaud, J., Mallah, K., Olafson, E., & van der Kolk, B. (2005). Complex trauma in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35, 390-398.


Beckendorf, K. (2013). Children of Trauma: What Educators Need to Know. National Council for Adoption, NO. 63, 1-18.

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