We tend to think of trauma as the result of a frightening and upsetting event. But many children experience trauma through ongoing exposure, throughout their early development, to abuse, neglect, homelessness, domestic violence or violence in their communities. And it’s clear that chronic trauma can cause serious problems with learning and behavior.

Trauma is particularly challenging for educators to address because kids often don’t express the distress they’re feeling in a way that’s easily recognizable — and they may mask their pain with behavior that’s aggressive or off-putting. As Nancy Rappaport, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who focuses on mental health issues in schools, puts it, “They are masters at making sure you do not see them bleed.”

Identifying the symptoms of trauma in the children can help educators understand these confusing behaviors. And it can help avoid misdiagnosis, as these symptoms can mimic other problems, including ADHD and other behavior disorders.

In brief, the obstacles to learning experienced by these children include:

  • Trouble forming relationships with teachers
  • Poor self-regulation
  • Negative thinking
  • Hypervigilance
  • Executive function challenges

Trauma and trouble forming bonds

Children who have been neglected or abused have problems forming relationships with teachers, a necessary first step in a successful classroom experience. They’ve learned to be wary of adults, even those who appear to be reliable, since they’ve been ignored or betrayed by those they have depended on.

“These kids don’t have the context to ask for help,” notes Dr. Rappaport, a school consultant and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “They don’t have a model for an adult recognizing their needs and giving them what they need.”

This article was written by Caroline Miller and originally posted on childmind.org. You can view this article in its entirety by clicking here.