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The Impact of Trauma on the Lives of Young Children (Part 1)

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In this podcast we interview Dr. Catherine Corr. She helps us understand why it’s important to recognize signs of trauma while working with young children and their families.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Corr is from the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.



Dr. Swartz: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Rebecca Swartz, and I am one of the project staff members.

Dr. Swartz: In this podcast we interviewed Dr. Catherine Corr from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Corr is an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education. She joins us to help us understand the impact of trauma on the lives of young children.

Dr. Swartz: Hello Dr. Corr. We’re so excited to have you on the Illinois Early Learning Project podcast. The effect of trauma on young children is a really hot topic in early care and education today, but many of our listeners are just getting started with understanding the impact of trauma on the lives of young children. Today we hope that you will help us learn some basic background about the effect of trauma on young children and how to recognize the signs of trauma. So thanks for joining us.

Dr. Corr: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Dr. Swartz: So to get us started, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in learning about the effect of trauma on young children.

Dr. Corr: Sure, so I’m excited to be here. I am a former early childhood preschool teacher as well as a developmental therapist, so lots of my actual practice work informs my research. So I have a lot of experience working with young children, particularly those who’ve experienced trauma. And so those experiences have really made me think a lot about how we support teachers or early childhood professionals to make sure they feel competent and confident in working with families who’ve experienced trauma.

And my current role here at the University of Illinois, I teach in the early childhood special ed program, and I teach courses around child development, curriculum and instruction, and then some introductory courses. So I have a hand sort of in prepping the next generation of early childhood teachers, which I’m excited about, and then I have some of my own practical experiences as well.

Dr. Swartz: Great. So you had mentioned that you were a developmental therapist and a preschool teacher. Did you experience working with children who you suspected might have experienced trauma during that time?

Dr. Corr: Yeah, so that’s actually probably one thing, when I left my program and went out to teach, it wasn’t on my radar at all. I was not expecting to work with kids who had experienced trauma. We had talked about things like poverty. We had talked about things like homelessness in my courses, in my training, in my practicum. But I wasn’t expecting trauma, and so that was, for me, it was sort of really difficult to figure out what I was supposed to do.

Dr. Swartz: All right.

Dr. Corr: Yeah.

Dr. Swartz: So let’s define trauma in the lives of young children. What is it and why is it important to think about?

Dr. Corr: Yeah. So the definition of trauma, there’s lots of definitions of trauma, I’ll say. I’ll sort of share the SAMSA definition which is …

Dr. Swartz: So SAMSA is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

Dr. Corr: Yes.

Dr. Swartz: For the U.S. government.

Dr. Corr: Yes.

Dr. Swartz: Great.

Dr. Corr: And they do a lot of work around substance abuse and then also around trauma. And so their definition of trauma is individual trauma resulting from an event or series of events or circumstances that’s experienced by an individual as physically, or emotional, harmful, or threatening. And so this definition, we like to use in our work because it’s very open-ended, which to some people may be a little daunting, but the thing about trauma is when you’re thinking about it, you have to think about three things.

So you think about the events that have happened for that child or family, you think about how they’re experiencing it, and then you think about the long- or short-term impact or effect of that. So it’s not necessarily that one event is traumatic for everyone, but instead it’s how that individual person is responding to that event. So, for instance, you and I, Rebecca, could experience the same event, so let’s say we were in a tornado together. You may experience that as being traumatic, whereas I may not. So sometimes it can be hard for folks, it’s not just necessarily a checklist of checking off things that have happened to an individual.

Dr. Swartz: Okay, so two children in the same school who experience the same tornado or tornado drill. One child might be really terrified, and the other child might just take it in stride.

Dr. Corr: Yes, absolutely. I would say lots of teachers have probably seen this during a fire drill.

Dr. Swartz: Yep.

Dr. Corr: So some kids are playing in the hallway, others are like, it takes a really long time to get them to calm down and come back to the classroom.

Dr. Swartz: Right, just even with the fire drill. Yeah, just even with the alarm going off. Yeah, that makes sense. So that’s what we can think about, is the variation of responses of children to something as simple as loud noises.

Dr. Corr: Mhm.

Dr. Swartz: Okay great, so what are some common traumatic experiences that young children and their families encounter?

Dr. Corr: Yeah, so I would say that, I’ll sort of give you a range of events that could be potentially traumatic for kiddos in early childhood settings. These were ones that I experienced a lot as an early childhood professional, and they sort of range, and I’ll talk about that. So it could be anything from losing a parent to violence, whether that’s neighborhood violence or domestic violence, to losing a pet to a hurricane or a natural disaster scenario.

So some of these as adults we might say, “Oh well losing a pet, that’s not a big deal. You get over it. It’s no big thing.” But to the child, it actually could be traumatic, and actually to some adults as well. So for us we have to think about how we’re interpreting that event, even though we may not see it as traumatic, the individual or the child may. So lots of would agree that losing a parent is probably traumatic, but for some kids they may respond in a way that it is less traumatic for them than another.

Dr. Swartz: Okay. So you mentioned something like a tornado or a natural disaster. Those are things that no one can control.

Dr. Corr: Right.

Dr. Swartz: So anybody can experience trauma.

Dr. Corr: Mhm.

Dr. Swartz: Interesting, so things like, thinking about things like house fires, and divorce, any other things that could be traumatic?

Dr. Corr: Yeah. I mean really, it’s all about the event that you experience. So some people may say that they’ve had a traumatic experience doing public speaking, which we would sort of say “Oh you were just embarrassed.” But for some people it may actually be traumatic.

Dr. Swartz: Okay, interesting.

Dr. Corr: So it really is less about thinking about how severe the event was, and more thinking about how that person responded to it.

Dr. Swartz: Sure. I’m thinking even about the simplest thing of a child who waits at pickup and is terrified that Mom or Dad or Grandma isn’t coming. That could be traumatic if that happened, and they didn’t understand what was going on. Whereas other kids just might not even notice.

Dr. Corr: Right, absolutely. And we see that a lot at, especially early on in the year in August with dropoff when everyone’s crying and worried about where Mom and Dad are going. And those are instances where we encourage teachers or support staff to sort of be really understanding, really compassionate. And really sort of accommodating to those needs.

Dr. Swartz: Well those kinds of everyday experiences really can help us understand that it’s not about what happened, but the response of the person and how they experience it. So that’s what we will keep in mind.

Dr. Corr: Yeah.

Dr. Swartz: So how might children show the signs of a traumatic experience through their behavior?

Dr. Corr: (Laughs.) Yeah, that’s a good question. So when we work with teachers or soon-to-be teachers, we often try and help them think about behavior as all being communicative.

Dr. Swartz: Right, ’cause they might not be able to say, “I’m experiencing stress.”

Dr. Corr: Exactly. Right.

Dr. Swartz: They won’t say that to you.

Dr. Corr: Especially for folks who are working with kids birth to 3, you know. Often times we’re not going to get the actual sentence of what’s happening. We think instead we’re going to flip that and think about, “Okay, so what is this behavior communicating to us?” So sometimes we’ll talk about behavior being challenging, which is true. It may be challenging to us as adults because we don’t know what’s going on, but really if we flip that and think about this behavior is communicating something to us, then we sort of come from a problem-solving lens.

So anything from lack of eye contact to showing anger and frustration, to not speaking in certain scenarios, can all be signs of trauma. And they can also just be signs of typical child behavior from the ages birth to 5. So it’s important for our early childhood professionals to think about good child development, what do we know a 3-year-old should be doing and then start to think about behavior that we’re noticing and think about what it could be communicating to us.

Dr. Swartz: Interesting, so we look at a child in their context and we say, this 3-year-old has a really hard time sharing. And we watch and we see that it’s not improving with our good guidance strategies, and then we start to think, we notice that this child has a really hard time sharing something very specific or seems more anxious than other children, and then we can inquire a little more. Why is that? Or that child is hiding things in the classroom. Why is that? What are they trying to tell us?

Dr. Corr: Yeah, so one response might be “Oh, they’re just not good sharers. They’re just being stubborn. They’re trying to take all the time with a particular toy. They’re monopolizing all with that toy.” And we may have rules about you only get five, two minutes with the timer for this toy. But for a child who has experienced trauma, they may see safety in that object or they may see consistency. So there may be, they may be communicating to you that this is actually helping me regulate myself, stay calm, stay safe. And so actually taking that object away can disrupt that.

Dr. Swartz: Sure, and then they can’t regulate then because, and we know that regulation is being able to manage their emotions, is their foundation to their ability to do everything else.

Dr. Corr: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: Wow, so we have to think of the behavior in a way that we look at it as communication.

Dr. Corr: Yes, and one of the things, I’ll say, this is much easier to do in early childhood. So we have, we’re teaching social-emotional skills. We’re working on sort of our self-regulation skills. We’re learning how to share. We’re learning how to build friendships. So this is sort of built into the meat of what we do on a day-to-day basis. I always say that this is much harder to do in high school, where emotions are running high and you have less time built into your social studies class to talk through what this looks like with high schoolers. So, for early childhood professionals, the good news is we can do this within what we already do in the classroom.

Dr. Swartz: Sure, and when we do this kind of work and we teach kids to manage the stress, we’re helping them develop skills that they’ll carry forward after high school.

Dr. Corr: Absolutely, yeah

Dr. Swartz: So it’s worthwhile, it’s worth our investment in time.

Dr. Corr: Yes.

Dr. Swartz: So you mentioned some of the things adults in early care and education programs or those who work in EI can do when they recognize the signs of trauma in a child. Do you have any other things you want to tell us about?

Dr. Corr: Yeah, so I think one of the most important things is to think of yourself as being part of a team. So it’s not just your responsibility to support this child, but it is also, you’re working very closely with the caregivers, whether that’s biological parents, foster parents. You’re working closely with therapists who may be involved. You may be working closely with DCFS workers, Department of Child and Family Services, that’s child welfare. So it’s important for you to think of yourself not as an island but sort of, you’re one piece of the puzzle. And when you’re a classroom teacher, you’re kind of a big piece of the puzzle because you see that kiddo for a large chunk of the day. So it’s important for you to have open communication and for you to have a relationship with these folks, beyond sort of, any paperwork side.

Dr. Swartz: Sure. And I know you’ve mentioned programs that have a collaborative team, such as an early childhood special education program or like in Illinois, we call Preschool for All. But even child care providers and people who work in child care settings or preschool settings, they can reach out for resources and team members in the child care resource and referral system and bring in specialists that they need or in through the early intervention system. So we think of ourselves as a team, even if it doesn’t seem like necessarily there’s a team around us.

Dr. Corr: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: So for a family child care provider, there’s potential team members that we can reach out to for support.

Dr. Corr: For sure. And then same for folks who are working in early intervention who may feel a little bit more like your team is invisible or more on paper. Those folks are still your team members. It may take a little bit more work to build that relationship since you don’t see them on a day-to-day basis.

Dr. Swartz: Right, so early childhood professionals can prepare themselves by knowing who their potential team members are. That’s one way. Are there other things that early childhood professionals can do to prepare themselves to work with children and families who’ve experienced trauma?

Dr. Corr: Yeah, I think my biggest tip which actually works, ties in nicely to preparing for a new school year or transition into a classroom, is knowing what the child really likes and knowing their strengths. So, one of the ways that we think about supporting kids, especially when they’ve experienced trauma, is we try and figure out how to individualize for them. So that means often times knowing what calms then, what comforts them, and that can be different. So for one kid bouncing on a trampoline may be what calms them, and for another kid quietly reading in a corner may calm them.

Dr. Swartz: Okay.

Dr. Corr: So those are all things that may come out in sort of a preference assessment or even just some of your intake paperwork when you’re talking to caregivers about what they like to do together. And then those are ways that we can sort of think about supporting the kiddo in the classroom.

Dr. Swartz: Okay. So just like how we thought of how response to a traumatic event can vary by individuals, so we had that fire drill in mind or that tornado in mind. One child is terrified, another child takes it in stride. We’re going to see differences in their responses in the way that they communicate through their behavior. Interesting. So, that, it sounds like early childhood professionals prepare themselves by knowing what their resources are and also by knowing the possible situations that a child or family might experience trauma in and then knowing their child development is really key. Because they have to determine whether behavior is typical or something that they should be concerned about.

Dr. Corr: Yeah, absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: Wow. There are so many things to consider about trauma and young children, and it seems like it’s a really important and relevant topic, especially since early childhood teachers and early childhood professionals in general are really having to be sensitive readers of behavior, because we know those children are not going to be able to just say, “That tornado was really terrifying for me.” So I’m wondering if you can help us point our listeners toward a course or learning opportunity that could help them learn more about trauma and its effect on young children.

Dr. Corr: Yeah, absolutely. So here at the University of Illinois through the Military Family Learning Network, we created a free online module, and it’s all about trauma. And the purpose of this is to, not necessarily have a stand-alone trauma-intensive course, but it’s more about raising awareness about trauma and how that impacts what we do on a day-to-day basis in your work in the classroom. And so this module is self-paced, so you can sort of take it at your own leisure. Some people do it over the course of a couple months, some people do it over the course of a couple of weeks. I wouldn’t recommend a one-day sitting; it’s a little long.

Dr. Swartz: Okay.

Dr. Corr: But inside the module, we sort of cover four different topics. The first is sort of realizing what trauma is, and that goes in a little bit more in-depth about what we were talking today. So realizing signs, here are symptoms, sort of realizing how this impacts child development. The second piece is recognizing. So recognizing places in your current work where this pops up and how you can sort of support kids who have experienced trauma. So recognizing this is a part of your role in early childhood special ed, or in early childhood or in child care, that this is a part of your day-to-day work.

Dr. Swartz: And then anybody who interacts with children.

Dr. Corr: Absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: So medical folks and community folks who wanna learn more about this topic too.

Dr. Corr: Yeah, absolutely, so we actually share this module from, with people anywhere who are lawyers, to we had some dentists who took it.

Dr. Swartz: Cool.

Dr. Corr: To pediatric nurses to school professionals. So the goal is that kids who’ve experienced trauma are everywhere and it’s, we don’t just treat the trauma in a therapy session, it shows up elsewhere. So our thought is if we can get good information out to a broad range of people, we can sort of raise awareness around trauma and trauma-informed attitudes.

Dr. Swartz: Sure.

Dr. Corr: So the first two pieces are realizing and recognizing. And the second two pieces are sort of, okay, so how do I respond to that trauma? What do I do in my practice to make sure I’m being trauma-informed or to make sure that I’m being supportive of the child’s needs, or family’s needs. And so inside the module there are several different video examples and vignettes to sort of get you to unpack some of your practice. And sort of think about, oh yeah, I do do this on a daily basis. I could add this one piece to sort of make it more trauma-informed.

Dr. Swartz: Okay.

Dr. Corr: And then the last piece is sort of, we always say we are working towards this, but we’re working towards resisting retraumatizing children. So what the means is, once you are able to realize, recognize, and respond to trauma, one of your roles is to minimize exposure to trauma for kids in your classroom. So that could mean that you know a kid has had a traumatic experience and your goal is just to make sure that they’re not retraumatized again in your classroom. It can also mean that now you have all of these pieces, you have all of this knowledge about trauma, that you are becoming sort of more of a preventative actor in your classroom by taking a more trauma-informed approach.

Dr. Swartz: Okay.

Dr. Corr: So all of this information will sort of be helpful for you to think about your day-to-day practice and how you support kiddos, and then also how you think about how you interact with other adults, both families as well as some of your collaborators, who also may have experienced trauma in their lives.

Dr. Swartz: Sure, so really it’s looking again at behavior as a meaningful, communicative thing and not as something where somebody is trying to necessarily get you to do something.

Dr. Corr: Right.

Dr. Swartz: Or a child being you know, naughty, but really thinking about this as a meaningful communication.

Dr. Corr: Yes, so we typically talk about how we always assume that kids and families are doing the best they can instead of labeling them as “unengaged” or “disinterested” or “bad” or “challenging.” So we’re assuming they’re doing the best they can and then it’s our job to think about how we can supplement that to make them feel more safe and comfortable in the classroom.

Dr. Swartz: That sounds like a really positive approach, so I hope that many of our listeners will take advantage of that free module.

Dr. Corr: Yes, absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: And I want to thank you today for talking with us and giving us this introduction to what is trauma in the lives of young children, and I want to mention to our listeners that your colleague Dr. Deserai Miller will be following up with us on another podcast to talk about responding to trauma in the lives of young children. So again, thanks for joining us, and I hope that we’ll have you back again for another podcast.

Dr. Corr: Sounds great, thank you so much.

Dr. Swartz: The Illinois Early Learning Project website at www.illinoisearlylearning.org is a source of evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

IEL Resources

About this resource

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

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related IEL Birth to Three Guidelines:
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2019