Finding good educational accommodations for children with trauma requires thinking outside the usual box.  The techniques that teachers and administrators are used to implementing often do not help our kids.  We have to explain that trauma can cause children to feel unsafe and to be on constant alert for danger.  It’s not a conscious reflex that we can deal with logically.  It’s buried deep in the back of a child’s brain, and our words reach different brain cells.  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.

The analogy I use is a computer.  Trauma is like a program that is working in the background, taking up all sorts of resources.  What see in the program at the front of the screen is slow, glitchy, and highly annoying.  Children’s brains work sort of the same way.  Their subconscious is trying to solve a problem in the background.  What we see on the surface is a child who is slow, distracted, and sometimes highly annoying.  Until therapy and love and stability can help their subconscious process the trauma, they just don’t have a lot of resources to devote to schoolwork.

So, we need to find accommodations that, again using the computer analogy, lessen the resources required of a child’s brain. Sometimes, we may need to get a child extra help for a school assignment.  Other accommodations may seem like a good idea but may actually be counterproductive.  Extending a project deadline, for example, may help some children.  But for others, it simply extends the time that they have to be anxious about it.  For those kids, we need to negotiate fewer requirements or a more streamlined process.  

Part of our job as parents is to keep our eyes on the big picture.  Schools see only part of our child’s day, and their job 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 foster child, consider whether the homework is important in the overall scheme of things.  Maybe establishing a relationship is a higher priority at that particular moment.

At the same time, we need to not let a child’s trauma become an all-encompassing excuse.  They need to learn how to overcome the trauma, not get trapped in it.  Empowering them is hard work, both for them and for us.  But if they don’t learn life skills to move past the trauma, then they will never feel that they can succeed.  So, we have to keep our eyes on the overall goal – helping our children realize that they are much more than the sum of their trauma and that they can accomplish great things.

The American Psychological Association has some great thoughts here about potential techniques, as does the National Association of School Psychologists here.  You can find a lot of ideas on various blogs and education websites.  Be prepared to educate your child’s educators about the effects of trauma and advocate for the technique that best fits your child’s needs.


Debbie Ausburn

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