The new school year is looming for our kids, and we need to help them get ready for it.  School usually is a place of failure and stress for children who have suffered a traumatic event.  Whether the trauma is from a car accident, a natural disaster, or something as targeted as sexual abuse, young people with trauma usually struggle with school.  Fortunately, there are some things we can do to help them find success that will build their self-esteem and resilience as they navigate this school year.   We can both find ways of helping the school understand principles of trauma-informed teaching and use trauma-informed practices in our parenting at home.

Explaining Effects of Trauma to the School

           1.    Help school personnel understand that trauma affects how our kids’ ability to trust their teachers.  Many kids who have suffered traumatic experiences, particularly those who have suffered abuse or neglect, have learned that they can’t trust the adults in their lives.  Even when they meet caring adults, they don't always recognize the care.  That lack of trust will carry over to school, making it very difficult for them to establish a trusting relationship with teachers.  They will have trouble believing that teachers care about them, and may be very defensive about listening to constructive criticism.

           2.    Explain that many children recovering from trauma have trouble managing strong emotions.  Trauma short-circuits a child's emotional development.  Many of them, particularly young children, experience strong emotions without knowing how to manage them, leading to a lot of disruptive behavior. Traditional discipline will only make the problem worse.  We need to help the teachers and school administrators understand that not all behavioral problems are intentional.  Then we need to help them find ways to support our kids and coach them in ways that help them manage their behavior.  Yes, our children need to have consequences for bad behavior, but those consequences need to reach the real problem of lack of self-regulation.

           3.    Explain how traumatized children develop the belief that they are bad and that no one is going to treat them well.  It's all too easy for kids to conclude that bad things have happened because they are bad kids. That sense leads directly to believe that teachers are out to get them.  They will hear suggestions as criticisms.  They also may be paralyzed by fear of making a mistake, particularly if their trauma history includes abuse.  We and the school need to find ways to help our kids understand that mistakes do not signal bad character, but are simply difficult and painful ways of learning what doesn’t work.

           4.    Help the school understand that chronic stress may have trained our children to be on constant alert for danger.  It’s not a conscious reflex that we can deal with logically.  The response is buried deep in the back of a child’s brain, and our words can only reach different brain pathways. So, despite our best efforts, a child whose brain is shouting “danger” has a lot of difficulty focusing on higher-process things such as learning.  Paying attention in high stress situations may be beyond a student's ability. Until therapy and love and stability can help our children process their trauma, they just don’t have a lot of resources to devote to schoolwork.  In the meantime, we have to find ways to use the mental and emotional resources that they can access.

           5.    Explain the need for psychological safety.   Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much for kids who have suffered childhood trauma to feel in danger, at least emotionally.  An irritated teacher, for example, can trigger memories of angry parents and domestic violence.  Bullying from peers can trigger the same fight, flight, or freeze response.  The emotional distress that accompanies that trigger will derail a child’s attention and make it impossible for him or her to pay attention to the day’s lesson.  Thus, the first and most essential element of classroom learning is developing a child's sense that school is an emotionally safe space.  That atmosphere also can be the hardest thing for a child's teacher to achieve, particularly in middle school and high school when bullying is a serious problem.  But we still need to work with the school to help our kids find a place where they feel safe (perhaps school counselors or other sympathetic teachers) and start to learn.

           6.    Help the school find ways to show positive attention.  There is no doubt that positive attention is better for our children (or anyone else) than negative attention.  Unfortunately, kids who have experienced maltreatment, particularly older children, are more experienced at provoking adults and setting up power struggles to provoke negative attention.  We need to work with the school to find different ways to catch kids being good.  Beyond that, though, we need to stress the importance of showing our kids kindness and emotional warmth when they haven’t earned it.  That supportive environment will help show our kids know that they can get attention without acting out and causing problems.  

           7.    Insist on Workable Accommodations.  Most of our kids will have a diagnosis that warrants an Individual Education Plan (IEPs) and specialized accommodations.  Unfortunately, our schools are built on the model of assembly lines, and most classroom activities are geared toward kids who fit the most common mold.  Individual teachers and administrators can see our kids as individuals, but it is hard for them to offer individualized attention within the typical classroom setting.  We have to insist that they find a way to give our kids what they need.  Advocating for our kids is our primary job.  We may have to think creatively to find helpful accommodations that the school is willing to implement, but we need to be sure that we don’t give up on that task.

Helping Our Kids Succeed

           1.    Help our children find a vocabulary for their emotions.  One of the most important things we can do for our kids is help them understand what’s happening when they experience triggers at school.   Getting help from mental health professionals may be essential to this journey, but we need to do our research and be able to help our kids express themselves in words rather than bad behavior.

           2.    Be Available to Listen.  Our kids may not be used to adults who pay attention to them in a positive way, in which case they won’t think to tell us that they need our attention.  We need to pay extra attention to them as the school year starts and check in regularly on how they are doing.  It won’t help if we pry.  Our best course is to check in without prying and follow our kids’ lead on whether they want to talk.

           3.    Don’t Take Behavior Personally.  As always with children who have suffered trauma, their behavior usually has more to do with their background and expectations than with anything we have done.  Sometimes they are deliberately pushing boundaries to see if they really can develop a sense of safety with us.  Be patient, help your kids find their vocabulary, and stick with them through their emotional storms.

           4.    Stay in Close Touch with the School.  Check in regularly with the school to find out what’s going.  Avoid blaming the school for your kids’ troubles and concentrate on positive ways to move forward.  I’m not saying to never blame the school, because sometimes you have to hold adults accountable in order to help your kids.  But keep your interactions as positive as possible.  Just as with our kids, the more positive we can be with the school, the better chances we have of establishing good relationships that will benefit our kids.

           5.    Give Your Kids Some Control Over Their Lives.  One common characteristic of kids who have suffered trauma is that they feel they have no control over anything that happens to them.  Our foster kids have been ripped from their families and our stepchildren had to watch from the sidelines as their parents split up.  Find age-appropriate choices for your kids to give them control over as much of their lives as you can.  In my experience, the more they can control, the less they will react to rules in other areas of their lives.

           6.  Encourage a Consistent, Predictable Routine.  Develop as much daily routine for your children as you can.  A predictable routine will help reassure them that their life is not as chaotic as they think and that the future will not be as frightening as it can seem.  The more your kids are able to predict their routine, the more they will feel that home is a safe place.

           7.  Find Small Successes for Our Kids.  One of the best ways to help our kids deal with school is to help them build their self-confidence.  The best (and maybe only) way to build self-confidence is to help our kids actually succeed. We may have to narrow our focus to a particular class or test, but we need to find successes that we can point out to our kids.  We also may need to look outside the classroom.  Extracurricular activities such as sports, clubs, or theater can be a fertile field for success and resilience.

           8.    Keep our eyes on the big picture.  Part of our job as parents is to focus on the whole child.  Schools see only part of our child’s day, and their focus is education. We are the ones who see more of the whole child and the big picture of what our child needs. So, sometimes, helping our children find success in the long run may require us to insist on some temporary accommodations. For example, if homework is becoming a power struggle with your child, consider whether it's important in the overall scheme of things. Maybe establishing a relationship is a higher priority at that particular moment. Certainly the difference between a C and a B is not worth creating additional stress and compounding trauma.  Education is important, and school is an important part of our kids’ lives, but it is not their whole life. Our job is to keep that important part of their life in perspective as we help them work through all the many things that they have going on in their heads.


Whichever technique we decide may work for our kids, we need to be patient.  Our kids spent a long time developing ways to cope with their trauma, and it will take a long time for them to develop new coping skills.  Teachers and administrators have a lot of things to do and a lot of other students to work with.  We have to be patient with everyone involved, but never give up on our main focus.  If we are going to break the cycle of trauma with our kids, we have to find ways for them to succeed and thrive in schools.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.