With grief, sadness is obvious. With trauma, the symptoms can go largely unrecognized because it shows up looking like other problems: frustration; acting out; difficulty concentrating, following directions, or working in a group. Often students are misdiagnosed with anxiety, behavior disorders, or attention disorders rather than understood to have trauma that’s driving those symptoms and reactions.

For children who have experienced trauma, learning can be a big struggle. But once trauma is identified as the root of the behavior, we can adapt our approach to help kids cope when they’re at school. Detroit-based clinical director of the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children, a program of the Starr Global Learning Network, Caelan Kuban Soma offers these tips for understanding kids who have been through trauma plus strategies for helping them. You can also check out our video: What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Childhood Trauma.

1. Kids who have experienced trauma aren’t trying to push your buttons.

If a child is having trouble with transitions or turning in a folder at the beginning of the day, remember that children may be distracted because of a situation at home that is causing them to worry. Instead of reprimanding children for being late or forgetting homework, be affirming and accommodating by establishing a visual cue or verbal reminder to help that child. “Switch your mind-set and remember the kid who has experienced trauma is not trying to push your buttons,” says Soma.

2. Kids who have been through trauma worry about what’s going to happen next.

A daily routine in the classroom can be calming, so try to provide structure and predictability whenever possible. Since words may not sink in for children who go through trauma, they need other sensory cues, says Soma. Besides explaining how the day will unfold, have signs or a storyboard that shows which activity—math, reading, lunch, recess, etc.—the class will do and when.

3. Even if the situation doesn’t seem that bad to you, it’s how the child feels that matters.

Try not to judge the trauma. As caring teachers, we may unintentionally project that a situation isn’t really that bad, but how the child feels about the stress is what matters most. “We have to remember it’s the perception of the child […] The situation is something they have no control over, feeling that their life or safety is at risk,” says Soma. It may not even be just one event but the culmination of chronic stress—for example, a child who lives in poverty may worry about the family being able to pay rent on time, keep their jobs, or have enough food. Those ongoing stressors can cause trauma. “Anything that keeps our nervous system activated for longer than four to six weeks is defined as post-traumatic stress,” says Soma.

– WeAreTeachers Staff

Read more: 10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs to Know

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