How Trauma Affects Child Development and Behavior: What Childhood Educators Need to Know
Children can experience trauma from many directions. Natural disasters devastate communities, leaving families homeless. Children are caught in the crosshairs of shootings and community violence. But the biggest emotional storms—neglect and abuse—rage inside the home, where children are supposed to feel safe and loved. Even though adults experience trauma, too, maturity helps them process the events more effectively and return to a sense of normalcy. For children, early-life traumas can actually alter their young brains and result in developmental and behavioral problems.
Without a close, loving relationship with parents and other caregivers, children learn they cannot rely on anyone to help them. When they are exploited and abused, children believe that they are bad and the world is unsafe and terrible. Trauma impairs the normal development of the brain and nervous system, the immune system, and the body’s stress response systems.*
Signs of Early Childhood Trauma
Early childhood educators can play an essential role in observing, identifying, and advocating for children who show signs of trauma in daycare, preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school settings. It’s important to be aware of common signs of trauma such as the following:†
Children up to 2 years old often:
- Demonstrate poor verbal skills.
- Exhibit memory problems.
- Display an excessive temper.
- Scream or cry excessively.
- Exhibit regressive behaviors.
Children 3–6 years old often:
- Have trouble learning or focusing in school.
- Develop learning disabilities.
- Demand attention through positive and negative behaviors.
- Are verbally abusive.
- Experience stomachaches and headaches.
Without early intervention and help, traumatized children grow up to be traumatized adults, often having abnormal reactions to stress, chronic physical ailments, relationship problems, learning difficulties, and tendencies to engage in risky behaviors like drug abuse and lawbreaking.‡
Having a Positive Impact on Traumatized Children
When early childhood educators know what to look for, they can advocate for the traumatized child and bring together family members, counselors, and other appropriate resources to start helping the child process trauma in a healthy way.
Educators who have graduated from early childhood or elementary education degree programs like a BS in Elementary Education understand what constitutes normal childhood learning and development. Teachers who study early childhood education at the graduate level, such as an MS in Early Childhood Studies with a specialization in Teaching and Diversity in Early Childhood Education, gain a deeper understanding of the impact of living in poverty and the effects of stress, violence, and trauma on young children.
As preschool directors, child care center directors, elementary school teachers, child and family advocates, and policymakers, early childhood educators are in influential positions to help young children and families deal more successfully with the negative effects of trauma.
*The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Effects of Complex Trauma, on the Internet at www.nctsn.org/trauma-types/complex-trauma/effects-of-complex-trauma.
†The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Symptoms and Behaviors Associated With Exposure to Trauma, on the Internet at www.nctsn.org/trauma-types/early-childhood-trauma/Symptoms-and-Behaviors-Associated-with-Exposure-to-Trauma.
‡National Institute of Mental Health, Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do, on the Internet at www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/helping-children-and-adolescents-cope-with-violence-and-disasters-parents-trifold/index.shtml.
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