Newsline Volume 33, Number 2

Helping Traumatized Children Learn

Helping Traumatized Children LearnThe above-titled book, written by the Massachusetts Advocates for Children in collaboration with Harvard Law School and the Task Force on Children Affected by Domestic Violence, is both critically acclaimed and nationally recognized as a much needed resource for educators, service providers, and parents (including Special Education Surrogate Parents). This is the first in a series of articles on the four opportunities to advocate for trauma-sensitive individual supports for a child: sharing information; trauma-sensitive evaluations; trauma-sensitive team meetings; and the IEP.

It is important that professionals working with children and families get a thorough history of traumatic events that may have occurred to the child over the course of his or her life. A comprehensive history helps caregivers and others have an appreciation of the seriousness of the child's experience. It also provides clues to gaps in a child's development of skills and can help caretakers and others be more supportive of the child's recovery. Schools are not likely to gather information on a child's trauma history as part of their standardized protocol. They generally obtain information on trauma events only when offered, yet children can spend 6-8 hours of their day with school providers. That is almost 50% of their waking day.

Schools often do not have sufficient information about a child's trauma history to assist appropriately with recovery efforts. Without a more thorough social history of the child, including information about a child's trauma triggers, cues, and anniversary dates, school staff may not recognize the reasons behind challenging behavior. They may spend time addressing the behavioral consequences of trauma rather than their root causes. As a result, building social coping skills, essential to the continued neurodevelopment of traumatized children, is not addressed. Teachers and others in schools need to gain a better understanding of child trauma and work collaboratively with other organizations in order to facilitate better academic and non-academic services.1

Professionals working with students in the custody of the state need to tread carefully down this path: confidentiality is paramount, and social workers do not readily share this type of information. Sharing this type of information can make children feel vulnerable and stigmatized. Also, the "trauma story", if not recounted with skilled clinicians, can cause retraumatization for some children. So what can be done? Department of Children and Families (DCF) social workers should share enough information with the IEP Team to indicate that trauma may be a contributing cause of learning or behavioral difficulties while avoiding unnecessary details, and always discuss the issue with the student, if it is age appropriate to do so.2

Balancing accountability with compassion is an underlying theme for teaching children with trauma histories. When disciplinary approaches that are adequate responses for typical transgressions don't work time after time for certain students, schools should look at a trauma-sensitive evaluation tool to determine whether trauma may be a factor. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, one of the most common measures is the Child Behavior Checklist for Children. No advanced training is necessary to administer this measure, making it practical in most trauma-related service settings, including schools.

In the next Newsline, we will discuss the use of trauma-sensitive evaluations to help IEP Teams assess the impact of complex trauma on students' academic and nonacademic performance.


1 Helping Children in the Child Welfare System Heal from Trauma: A Systems Integration Approach From the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Systems Integration Working Group, p. 17. Rev. August 23, 2005.

2 Helping Traumatized Children Learn: Supportive School Environments for Children Traumatized by Family Violence. Susan Cole, J.D., M.Ed., PowerPoint Notes for the Federation for Children with Special Needs, September 19, 2012.