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After “Something Happened”: Responding to Trauma in Young Children

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child and teacher

A previous blog post addressed types of adverse experiences that can cause extreme stress and trauma in a child’s life. This post looks at how the effects of those experiences can show up in early childhood classrooms and what educators can do to help.

Trauma responses in young children

One common sign that “something happened” is an abrupt change in the way a child acts at school, such as when a child who has seemed happy most of the time suddenly stops playing with friends and has angry outbursts or cries a lot.

A child who has experienced trauma may

  • seem very sad for several weeks or may cry inconsolably.
  • “shut down” emotionally.
  • withdraw from all interactions.
  • have extreme difficulty focusing, even during activities they enjoyed before.
  • seem anxious, fearful, always “on alert.”
  • “lose ground” developmentally, e.g., with speech or toilet training.
  • have a “short fuse” and get angry easily.
  • have trouble playing with others.
  • re-enact a traumatic event in their play, perhaps with dolls or puppets, or by drawing or painting what happened.
  • stop eating.
  • say their heart is pounding or say they feel sick or nauseated.
  • have nightmares or trouble falling asleep.
  • “relive” the traumatic event when something reminds them of it.
  • impulsively act in ways that hurt others or themselves.

Some children talk openly about what happened, but often they can’t describe the event or how they feel. In fact, research suggests that a child’s brain sometimes blocks memories of an overwhelming experience. They may remember fragments, if anything, and be unable to make sense of it.

Several items on the list above could also indicate childhood mental health issues. So it’s important that educators and caregivers keep in mind that our job is not to make a diagnosis but rather to provide spaces and interactions that help the child grow, heal, and learn. (And, of course, if we suspect the trauma involves child maltreatment, our job includes making sure a report is made to the Department of Children and Family Services.)

If we carefully and thoughtfully document a child’s behavior, we can share observations with the family to support their search for therapeutic help. Our documentation can also guide us in developing strategies for working with the child. It can also alert program administrators that some action is needed, such as hiring additional staff if the child’s needs often require extra attention from the teacher.

Protective factors and trauma

The term protective factors refers to conditions that can reduce the harmful effects of a potentially traumatic event—or help a child recover from it. Different sources identify an array of protective factors; some pertain more to older children.

Protective factors especially relevant for preschool-age children include:

  • trustworthy adults to turn to (e.g., relatives, teachers, mental health professionals)
  • places where they feel safe and where their physical and emotional well-being is the focus
  • relationships that affirm their personal worth, cultural identity, and sense of belonging
  • experiences that build and affirm their competence
  • community resources such as jobs for parents, medical and mental health services, family support programs, parks and playgrounds

Some ways educators can help

Specific “how-to” advice is beyond the scope of this blog. Instead, I’ll share several general suggestions that have been useful to me.

  • Be realistic. When I worked in child protective services, we were trained to remember that our role was specific and regulated by law. No matter how much we wished to save children from trauma in their lives, we couldn’t “rescue” them or single-handedly fix what hurt them. What a teacher or caregiver can offer a child affected by trauma is quite different from what a therapist, social worker, or parent provides, but a teacher can still help with healing. I’ll say more about that below.
  • Focus on empathy. Our understanding of others is filtered through our experiences, so we may never know what a child feels about a traumatic event. But we can keep in mind that they’re doing their best to get through the present after facing situations that could overwhelm anyone. Even on their hardest days, they deserve to know we respect them as human beings with legitimate needs and limitations—and strengths.
  • Build protective factors into your program. Safe environments with nurturing, trustworthy adults can support healing from trauma—and are good for all children! Curriculum that includes music, storytelling, drama, and creative movement; self-directed art experiences; and plenty of time for play with puppets, dolls, and open-ended materials such as clay or sand can be especially good for children’s sense of competence and self-efficacy. They are also likely to benefit from activities meant to help them recognize and handle emotions. The teacher may need to set some flexible limits. Does a child repeatedly beat on a puppet or smash toy cars together or show other signs of distress in their play? They could be playing out a traumatic family event or expressing how they feel about it. Sometimes teachers find it hard to let children act out strong “scary” feelings. We’re not trained therapists, and we have to make sure nobody gets hurt and no classroom materials are permanently damaged. But if a child senses that we disapprove when they play out difficult feelings, they may shut down. Professional development can help us respond effectively to puzzling or disturbing behaviors.
  • Learn about trauma-informed teaching. Some organizations sponsor professional development on trauma-informed classrooms. Every teacher I know who has had that training strongly recommends it. Even if the training isn’t available, any early childhood program can become intentional about meeting the needs of children who experience trauma and extreme stress. NAEYC offers two resources that are good places to start: the web article Creating Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms and the book Trauma and Young Children: Teaching Strategies to Support and Empower.
Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza holds a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from University of Illinois, a master’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Illinois, and a master’s in counseling psychology from Adler University of Chicago. She served on the faculty of the early childhood teacher education program at Millikin University and worked with children and families for more than 25 years as a teacher, social worker, and counselor. She recently collaborated with Dr. Debbie Reese on a young people’s adaptation of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz). Her long-standing interest in children’s literature is reflected in her reviews of children’s books with Native content, which have appeared in A Broken Flute and on the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. Jean and her late husband, Durango, have four grown children and six grandchildren. She lives in Urbana, Illinois.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2022