Toxic stress and trauma have an enormous impact on children’s development and learning. Understanding the nuances and nature of trauma can help educators, administrators, and all child-serving adults learn to buffer the effects of adversity on children who have experienced trauma and help them heal and thrive.
To learn more about trauma and trauma-informed practices in the context of education — from early childhood to K–12 — we sat down with three experts at WestEd. We discussed everything from the effects of trauma on brain development and learning, to ways that educators can mitigate and heal the negative impact of trauma on the children they work with, to the types of improvements administrators can see if they foster trauma-informed environments in their schools and districts.
To make sure we’re all starting from the same understanding, can you define the word trauma for us?
Julie Kurtz (Co-Director, Trauma-Informed Practices in Early Childhood Education): We can start with the SAMHSA [Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration] definition, which is, “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” 1
Julie Nicholson (Deputy Director, Center for Child and Family Studies; Co-Director, Trauma-Informed Practices in Early Childhood Education): For a book we have coming out in the fall,2 we adapted the SAMHSA definition to the early childhood context: “Trauma is an actual or perceived danger, which undermines a child’s physical or emotional safety, or poses a threat to the safety of the child’s parents or caregivers — overwhelming their coping ability, and impacting their functioning and development.”
An event becomes traumatic for a young child when it overwhelms his or her nervous system’s ability to cope with stress. But adults can’t determine whether a particular experience is traumatic for a child just based on the intensity of a circumstance — because the experience of trauma is subjective and defined by its particular effect on a child’s nervous system. Traumatic experiences, whether real or perceived, lead children to feel significant levels of helplessness, powerlessness, and intense fear.