The story behind the student’s behavior: Trauma-informed schools save lives

Ben arrives late to school almost every morning. When he enters his second-grade classroom, his teacher asks for his homework. He slaps classmates on the backs of their heads and knocks books off their desks. His teacher tells him to sit down in a loud, annoyed voice. Ben continues walking around the room distracting other students. The teacher raises her voice and points a finger at Ben, ordering him to sit. Ben kicks his chair and spins around the room. “That’s it! I am calling your mother!” the teacher threatens, but Ben does not hear her. He has run out into the hallway. The teacher picks up the phone and dials the main office to alert the principal.

How would you handle this situation if you were Ben’s teacher? Do you agree with the steps she took to try and manage his behavior? Is there anything you would do differently?

Ben’s story: A snapshot

Ben saw his father get hit by a car last summer. After the fatal accident, his mother stopped working due to severe depression and the family eventually lost its home. For the past three months, Ben, his mother, and his two younger sisters have been living with relatives in a two-bedroom apartment in another borough. It takes Ben almost two hours to commute to and from school each day, which is why he is consistently late. (His aunt drops him off on the way to work, after getting her own kids to school.)

When Ben arrives home in the evening, he finds his mother sleeping or watching television on the couch. She does not think to ask him about school or his homework, which is impossible to do in such an overcrowded, noisy space. He is exhausted and often falls asleep without eating dinner. Since he shares a bed with three other children, he does not get adequate rest. He stays up most of the night listening to his mother and uncle fight. Ben often leaves for school without brushing his teeth and wearing the same clothes from the day before. No one at school has ever noticed, except for a few classmates who make fun of him.

Does knowing Ben’s story alter the way you would approach the situation? How does this new information inform your understanding of his behavior? Is engaging in a power struggle and implementing negative consequences the most effective way to create change?

Ben is one of 35 million children who have experienced significant trauma. Traumatic experiences include physical, sexual, and verbal abuse as well as physical and emotional neglect. Many possible scenarios exist within these categories, including living with a parent with a mental illness or substance abuse issues, witnessing domestic violence, losing a parent to abandonment or divorce, or having a family member in jail. School and community violence, natural disasters, terrorism, and refugee trauma are other issues that children face today.

The impact of trauma depends on a number of variables and protective factors. The severity and duration of a traumatic experience does not always correlate with the outcome. Children’s personalities, cognitive abilities, and genetic dispositions play a role in how trauma affects them. Resilience also largely depends on a cohesive family environment that will provide ongoing support. Considering trauma often occurs within families, community advocacy is critical to provide children with opportunities to connect with others in meaningful ways. Children’s well-being and success lies in the power of resilience.

What this means for schools

With an estimated one out of four children coming to school with a trauma history, teachers and staff need to become aware of the symptoms and educated in trauma-sensitive practice. On average, students spend 35 hours a week with their teachers. This is a significant period of time in which educators can positively impact the lives of their students.

Typically, if a student acts out in class, the teacher will attempt to redirect the behavior, as in the scenario with Ben. If that strategy is unsuccessful, the child may face punishment or removal from the learning environment. For children who have not been impacted by trauma, these behavioral interventions may work. So, why did the same techniques backfire on Ben?

The brain’s response to trauma affects its development and can lead to physical, emotional, social, and cognitive impairment. Experiencing chronic stress and anxiety is overwhelming and exhausting. Regular coping skills cannot manage the intensity of emotions that flood children with a trauma background. In fact, a reactive stance exacerbates inappropriate behavior.

Living in a constant state of fear makes children hypervigilant. When they feel threatened, a fight-or-flight response activates, releasing stress hormones throughout the body. Some children may freeze or shut down when they are triggered. Others use anger as a powerful and protective shield to fend off what they perceive to be danger. The difficulty they have in responding to authority figures is often viewed as a sign of disrespect and defiance when it is actually an automatic response to stress, which reinforces the trauma cycle.

This heightened level of alertness also interferes with developing positive relationships with peers. Students impacted by trauma struggle to express and control their emotions. Some may isolate while others may dominate or bully others. They crave meaningful interactions, but often misinterpret social cues when trying to build a relationship, which can trigger inappropriate reactions. Consequently, these children often remain alone, friendless, and misunderstood.

They cannot make sense of the internal contradictions they experience: longing for friends but not having the social-emotional skills to make them; yearning for peace and quiet when their stress response signals the brain to run and scream; desperately wishing for someone to notice their indescribable pain instead of the number of times they were suspended. These personal challenges breed increased feelings of frustration, powerlessness, and hopelessness.

Supportive adult relationships serve as protective factors to buffer the impact of trauma-related stress. Teachers who take the time to develop and foster meaningful alliances with their students gain a deeper understanding of why children act out. Trauma-informed adults who consistently model healthy self-regulation, social-emotional coping techniques, conflict-resolution strategies, and effective communication skills are training children to use them so that with practice they will gradually internalize them. This is where healing begins.

All children want to succeed in school. When they are not doing well, something is getting in their way. Teachers must rigorously observe and ask questions until they figure out what the obstacles are. Sometimes it may be as simple as a student needing glasses. Other times, it can be a case of complex trauma, which requires more attention and more work. Regardless, teachers have a responsibility to problem solve, with the help of the child, until an effective plan is put in place.

The process begins by acknowledging children’s experiences with empathy, compassion, and respect. The simple acts of noticing and caring build trust and resilience. Teachers need to learn how to read their students’ behaviors. If a child throws a book across the room, he is expecting a reaction: power struggle or abandonment. Neither reaction provides what the child needs. Receiving reprimands and repeated rejection destroys a child’s hope for building genuine relationships and leaves him feeling alone, terrified, and worthless. The fight-or-flight response kicks in and the cycle continues.

A teacher can offer an alternate trauma-informed response by observing the student’s behavior and recognizing it as an expression of his inner turmoil: “It is not safe to throw books in the classroom. Here’s a stress ball to release some of that tension. Take it over to the quiet area and listen to some music on the headphones until you are ready to join the class.”

The response is delivered firmly, objectively, and without judgement. Acknowledgment of the underlying issues with an unexpected solution will not provoke a stress response, and as a result, the child will slowly become calmer and more centered.

Trauma-sensitive teaching is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It requires sensitivity, creativity, and trial and error. It is a slow and steady process that demands patience. Traumatic experiences can have a lifelong impact, and rigorous measures to counteract their effects must be constant. When children receive encouragement and support within a safe and stable learning environment, there is potential for growth.

A paradigm shift needs to happen in our schools. Strength-based approaches to education engage students and help them learn. They lead to improvements in academic performance and behavior as well as the development of social-emotional skills and self-esteem. When children feel that others understand them, they become empowered. They are more comfortable and better equipped to self-regulate and focus on their work. These changes will also contribute to the overall success and safety of the school. Trauma-informed practice is not easy, but its rewards are life-changing.

Talk to your children’s schools about trauma-informed approaches to teaching.

For more information, contact The National Child Traumatic Stress Network ( and The National Center for Trauma-Informed Care (

Laura DeInnocentiis has been teaching and writing for the past 25 years. Currently, she is working toward her Masters in social work at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. DeInnocentiis’s creative literacy program, Literartsy, supports young writers in her Brooklyn community.

Suggestions for teachers

What can teachers do to help students who have been impacted by trauma?

• Ask students how you can help them; let them know you care.

• Understand students’ needs and be flexible to accommodate them.

• Explain how stress affects the body and mind, and teach students strategies to help reduce or control their reactions.

• Offer alternatives if students are uncomfortable in a situation.

• Model positive, affirming language to replace students’ inner critics.

• Provide consistency and predictability; transitions are difficult because the unexpected can trigger a stress response.

• Build and encourage meaningful relationships so students feel supported.

• Set short-term, achievable goals to ensure success.

• Create quiet, safe spaces for students to de-stress and calm down.

• Listen to students; show them their voice matters.