Newsline Volume 33, Number 3

Trauma-Sensitive Evaluations

By Jane Crecco, Training & Support Specialist
Recruitment, Training & Support Center for Special Education Surrogate Parents (RTSC)

stressed elementary school aged girlHelping Traumatized Children Learn, 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 second 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.

When children are referred for initial evaluations for special education due to a myriad of symptoms or behaviors, it is important to consider whether complex childhood trauma is at the root of the problem. So many issues can be subsumed under this heading: aggression, defiance, withdrawal, hyperactivity, lack of motivation, impulsiveness, dramatic mood shifts, and even language delays. How does an IEP Team decide that trauma is playing a role, and avoid inadvertently misdiagnosing some of the symptoms? Trauma-sensitive evaluations should be used to address the interface between trauma and the student's cognitive and learning profile.

School evaluations should address the role trauma may play in learning, behavior, and social/emotional growth. If the role of trauma has already been identified (as is the case for many students in the custody of the Department of Children and Families), then the link is easily established and the evaluators should proceed with complex childhood symptomology clearly in mind. What about the "gray area" where the Team is not exactly sure about the trauma history? A "trauma" evaluation can be made. This kind of assessment is different than a "trauma-sensitive" evaluation in that it is clinically oriented and looks to pinpoint the source and type of the trauma (physical, sexual, emotional); a trauma-sensitive evaluation tries to determine whether or not there is a component of trauma to the difficulties the child is experiencing at school. In either case, the default approach should be to encourage success for the child and create a trauma-sensitive environment for him (calming, caring, nurturing, and safe), and avoid re-traumatization by the wrong disciplinary approach.1

If the Team is determining eligibility of a student with a history of trauma for an IEP, an Emotional Disability is commonly agreed upon as the type of disability that is impairing academic progress. To establish the criteria for making this determination, several evaluations can be useful, but the focus should be on psychological, speech and language, functional behavioral, and occupational therapy assessments. Below are ways to ensure that each of these can ensure appropriate evaluation:

  1. Psychological Evaluation: It is helpful to refer a traumatized child (or one suspected as such) to a mental health professional (preferably, with a Ph.D.) who has knowledge about the impact of trauma on academic and non-academic progress. To protect the confidentiality of the student and his family, the details of the trauma are far less important to a school than an understanding of how the child is functioning and why this is so. Trauma triggers, specific ways to help the student modulate emotional and physical responses, ways to make the student feel safe and secure at school, and specific modifications and/or accommodations should be included.

  2. Speech and Language Evaluations: An appropriate evaluation should include the linguistic, pragmatic, and narrative aspects of language. Many children with complex childhood trauma are challenged by receptive and expressive language delays, age-appropriate perspective taking, and social cueing.

  3. Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBAs): Specific behavioral challenges require specific behavior plans to ensure academic and non-academic success. An FBA consists of collecting information about the antecedents and consequences to the student of certain environmental (or internally driven) challenges, like trauma triggers, distorted image of authority figures, and an inability to follow routines and rules. Therefore, there must be a careful assessment of the school and classroom environments.

  4. Occupational Therapy Evaluations: In addition to developmental delays in fine motor skills that may be evident with a traumatized child, accommodations and modifications that will produce a calm and nurturing learning environment can be recommended through these evaluations.

In conclusion, children with histories of complex childhood trauma can display many "comorbid" issues and diagnoses. Many of these symptoms respond positively to "trauma-sensitive" recommendations made by evaluators to an IEP Team. By becoming aware that violence may be at the heart of many of the child's learning and behavioral difficulties, school personnel may be able to mitigate much of the lasting impact of trauma. An understanding of its impact on learning and behavior will help educators and other school staff plan the most successful path to the future. In the next Newsline, we will discuss Trauma-Sensitive Team Meetings so that everyone can participate in helping the traumatized child learn.


1 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.