Responding to Students Who Have Experienced Trauma

It’s estimated that 26 percent of children in the U.S. will witness or experience a traumatic event before they are four years old. Kids like Gavin, 14, from Fort Huachuca, Arizona, whose father has been deployed as a U.S. Army soldier for most of his childhood, or like Colin, 18, from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, whose alcoholic and abusive mother used to take him with her to bars when he was just a young boy. Whether trauma is ongoing, or sudden, like the recent rash of tornadoes that hit Alabama and Missouri, it can have a devastating impact on a child’s development and ability to achieve at school.

To raise awareness about this health problem and to offer solutions, the Department of Health and Human Services has declared May 3 National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.

“Severe trauma can alter brain activity patterns in children that can lead to mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders,” says Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Administrator Pamela S. Hyde. “It is critically important that they get the specialized services and supports that work to build resilience.”

Resilience was the theme of the 2011 Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, and at more than 1,000 events held around the country yesterday, young people shared their stories of resilience and the importance of community involvement in helping them overcome trauma.

One way to recover from trauma is to help other kids going through similar experiences.

“When I was six, my dad gave me a teddy bear that I named ‘Teddy.’ And when my dad was deployed, it was like he was still with me through Teddy” says Gavin, from Arizona. Now Gavin helps other kids cope with the fear and uncertainty that goes along with having parents deployed in the military through the “Teddy Bear Drive” that he founded in his community.

Colin from Pennsylvania had to overcome abuse and also live in foster care. Now he’s the Youth Representative to Valley Youth House’s Board of Directors and a member of Pennsylvania’s Youth Advisory Board’s Northeast Region.

“I work to ensure that youth in care don’t’ lose their childhood like I did and that they get treated the way they deserve,” he says.

According to data released by SAMHSA yesterday, kids affected by traumatic events who receive a community-based “system of care” – a network of care and supports provided by educators, mental health experts, and local government and community organizations – increases school attendance by 44 percent, improves grades by 41 percent, and decreases suicide attempts by 64 percent.

For educators, differentiating the symptoms of trauma from other issues, like anxiety or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, known as ADHD, isn’t easy because emotional and behavioral responses to trauma vary depending on circumstances like a child’s personality, the type and severity of the incident, and the availability of adult support. A child who has experienced trauma may suddenly lose control of his or her emotions, withdraw from friends or family, or not show outward changes at all. Younger children may have even more difficulty talking about what they are experiencing.

Still, there are behaviors that could be signs that a child is having difficulty dealing with a traumatic event, such as:
• Separation anxiety or clinginess towards teachers
• Changes in appetite
• Decreased interest in and/or withdrawal from friends and normal activities
• Over- or under-reaction to physical contact, sudden movements, and sounds
• Angry outbursts and/or aggression
• Frequent complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue
• Repeated recreations of the event through comments, drawings, or activity
• Avoidance behaviors (e.g., resisting going to places that remind them of the event)
• Heightened difficulty with authority, redirection, or criticism
• Emotional “numbing,” or expressing no feelings at all about the event

How can educators, caregivers, and other adults respond? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers these suggestions:
• Follow your school’s reporting procedures if you suspect abuse
• Maintain usual routines
• Make sure the child is not being isolated
• Provide a safe place where the child can talk about the incident
• Offer choices when appropriate to help the child regain a sense of control
• Be sensitive to potential environmental cues that may cause a reaction (e.g., an approaching storm or the anniversary of an event)
• Warn the child in advance of a change in routine or other event that could be unsettling
• Monitor what information the child shares with other children to prevent excessive curiosity from peers
• Nurture the child’s positive self-view
• Give simple and realistic answers to the child’s questions about traumatic events to help clarify distortions and misconceptions.
• Monitor your own reactions to the situation, and ask for help when you are not sure how to address a child’s needs

With support, many children can recover quickly from the fear and anxiety caused by a traumatic experience. Others, however, may need more help over a longer period of time to recover and build resilience needed to help them face new challenges in the future. In such cases, teachers should inform their school administrators and counselors/psychologists about their concerns regarding the student. Depending on the school district’s policies, a referral for follow-up assistance may be the next step.

More information about trauma and its effects on children of all ages is also available on SAMHSA’s Web site