10 Classroom Behaviors That Are Actually Side Effects of Trauma

Opinion by Rachael Moshman

(Originally published by Bored Teachers)

Almost half of the children in the United States have experienced at least one form of serious childhood trauma. That’s nearly 35 million children. Even more alarming: nearly 75% of kids aged 12-17 have experienced two or more forms of trauma. Childhood trauma impacts physical and mental health all the way through adulthood. It also plays a big role in how children function in your classroom.

Trauma rewires the brain as a means of protection. This often causes children to react to situations in ways that are sometimes challenging, frustrating and difficult to understand. I’ve spent decades working with at-risk children and families in classroom settings. I’m also a mom to children adopted from the foster care system. My adult life has been centered around navigating the repercussions of early childhood trauma, and I’m hoping I can help you recognize certain signs of trauma in your classroom.

Here are some common classroom scenarios that may look like behavior issues or learning delays, but are actually side effects of trauma.

1. Aggression or bullying

You’ve probably heard the phrase “hurt people hurt people.” This is often true of children who have experienced trauma. They may lash out on their peers (or even teachers, aids and administration) with verbal or physical aggression.

2. Stealing

“A child that steals is a child in survival mode,” says Kathy Haddock, of Trauma-Sensitive Teachers. Children steal for a variety of reasons that typically come back to the need for safety. They might steal food because they’ve experienced extreme hunger or material objects because they want to fit in with their peers.

3. Lying 

Haddock, who is a foster and adoptive parent, says lying is also a symptom of children being in survival mode. Children might lie because they are afraid of what will happen to them if they tell the truth. Sometimes it is easier to create an alternative reality than to face real life. The lying and stealing might be about something small that doesn’t make sense. Remember, trauma changes the wiring of the brain and this impacts logic.

4. Not feeling well

Trauma often causes appetite issues, insomnia, exhaustion, headaches, and other health problems. This could lead to frequent absences, trips to the nurse’s office or just seeming “off” during class.

5. Unexpected emotional reactions

Trauma often makes it difficult to regulate emotions, which might show up in unexpected outbursts in the classroom, such as angry meltdowns, crying, or hysterical laughter.

6. Disruptive behavior

When children’s brains are developed in high stress, chaotic environments, they sometimes seek to create that wherever they go. When stress and chaos are all you know, a quiet, calm, orderly, safe classroom can be terrifying, and uncomfortable.

7. Memory issues

“Time gets a little weird with people who have been through trauma. It’s common for traumatized people to experience memory gaps,” Haddock explains.

8. Perfectionism

Some traumatized students strive to be the best at everything they do. They become extreme people-pleasers. They hope perfection will keep them safe. This can lead to anxiety and frustration when they don’t meet their own expectations.

9. Trouble absorbing new information

Haddock says, “Sometimes kids have so much to worry about in their lives there simply isn’t room to learn new material.

10. Withdrawn or introverted interactions

While some children project their trauma outwardly, others turn in. They might seem uninterested, shy, unresponsive or timid. It might also appear they aren’t paying attention.

So what can teachers do to help children who have been through trauma, while making the classroom a safe place for all students to learn and thrive? Colleen Wilkinson of Trauma-Informed Montessori has devoted her career to learning about trauma and now travels the country training other teachers. She shares the following key components to having a classroom that is healthy and positive for everyone.

  • How we view traumatized students:  “Children who have experienced trauma are survivors and don’t need pity. They may need help adjusting behaviors that no longer serve them or don’t serve them at school. Remember that they are whole human beings, who are doing the best they can with what capabilities they have at the time.”
  • Focusing on relationships with students:  “Relationships are the key to trust and growth and ultimately to behavioral change.”
  • Educating ourselves on early childhood trauma: “The best thing we can do is remember that the vast majority of our students WILL experience trauma at some point, and we can develop our own teaching practice to ensure we are using trauma-informed care as a universal precaution and being mindful of the ways school environments can systemically inflict trauma.”

Remembering that children might react in certain ways as a result of bad things that happened to them and not purposely to annoy or disrespect you will be of great help in and out of the classroom. Don’t take challenging behavior personally. Instead, remind yourself that trauma might very-well be at the root. It will then be easier to focus on connecting to the child instead of you reacting out of frustration.