How Does Trauma Affect Children?

The effects of trauma on children are far more pervasive than adults imagine. The National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence found that over 60% of children surveyed experienced some form of trauma, crime, or abuse in the prior year, with some experiencing multiple traumas. Often, children and adolescents do not have the necessary coping skills to manage the impact of stressful or traumatic events. As such, as many as one in three students who experience a traumatic event might exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Following a child's exposure to a traumatic event, parents and teachers are likely to observe the following symptoms: 

  • Reexperiencing — constantly thinking about the event, replaying it over in their minds, nightmares.
  • Avoidance — consciously trying to avoid engagement, trying not to think about the event.
  • Negative Cognitions and Mood — blaming others or self, diminished interest in pleasurable activities, inability to remember key aspects of the event.
  • Arousal — being on edge, being on the lookout, constantly being worried.

Traumatic Events and Learning

Symptoms resulting from trauma can directly impact a student’s ability to learn. Students might be distracted by intrusive thoughts about the event that prevent them from paying attention in class, studying, or doing well on a test. Exposure to violence can lead to decreased IQ and reading ability. Some students might avoid going to school altogether. 

Exposure to violence and other traumatic events can disrupt youths’ ability to relate to others and to successfully manage emotions. In the classroom setting, this can lead to poor behavior, which can result in reduced instructional time, suspensions, and expulsions. Long-term results of exposure to violence include lower grade point averages and reduced graduation rates, along with increased incidences of teen pregnancy, joblessness, and poverty.