Trauma and Our Students – What Teachers Can Learn

I read a book called The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.

I highly recommend this book to those who work with students. Many of our kids have experienced trauma and it gets in the way of their ability to feel safe and comfortable, to form trusting relationships, and to relax and enjoy the experience of discovering the world around them.

The book’s title is derived from the observation that trauma survivors experience trauma as physical symptoms, not just as mental and emotional turmoil. Those who have experienced trauma may appear to be “fine,” but their hormone levels, cortisol, blood pressure, heart rate, etc. all tell a different story. Healing from trauma requires dealing with the physical as well as the mental and emotional–they are inseparable.

Students who come from impoverished communities are more likely to have experienced childhood trauma, yet they are also the students who are most likely to attend under-resourced schools that lack programs which would help them to cope effectively with trauma through things like art, music, theater, dance, and physical education.

We as educators can benefit from learning more about trauma in order to help our students who are unlikely to receive all of the supports that would aid them in coping effectively with their trauma. But even without any formal knowledge or training in working with kids with trauma, many educators have successfully intuited students’ needs and provided them with the kinds of support they need.

Here’s a brief video from the author, Dr. van der Kolk, about childhood trauma and the impact it has on the trajectory of a person’s development:

For those interested in a deeper dive, here a 100-minute long lecture Dr. van der Kolk gave that explores many of the concepts from the book.

Here is what I took from my reading and how I think it applies to teaching:

Big ideas:

  • Lots of people experience trauma in all kinds of contexts and for many different reasons–it doesn’t take one particular form and it can affect anyone.
  • It is hard to feel safe, relaxed, and comfortable if you are frequently being bombarded with strong negative emotional and physical sensations (the effect of traumatic stress).
  • It is obviously hard to learn if you do not feel safe, relaxed and comfortable.
  • People who are traumatized are at risk for engaging in behaviors that help them to deal with intense negative physical and emotional sensations in the short term, but those behaviors can be counter productive in the long term (self-destructive behavior, drug use, attention seeking behavior, avoidance, isolation, aggression, etc.)
  • Even kids who are not traumatized can gain from learning about how to self-regulate their emotions, engage in activities that put them in sync with others (music, theater, etc.), and strengthen their social support networks.

Other takeaways (though there are many more key points I have not listed here):

  • Trauma occurs when a person experiences a fight-or-flight situation and is unable to take some kind of action. If they become trapped and are unable to escape or act when experiencing intense fight-or-flight emotions, these emotions can become imprinted on the brain and trigger traumatic stress reactions in the future.
  • Those who have experienced trauma experience their brains “reactivating” the trauma and flooding their bodies with stress hormones. This causes them to experience uncomfortable emotional and physical sensations. From a mental/emotional/chemical standpoint, their brains frequently repeat the experience of the trauma.
  • Trauma reactions begin as the brain’s way of triggering the fight-or-flight response to keep the person alive but later become an obstacle to living an enjoyable, engaged life.
  • People who have experienced trauma can often end up engaging in self-destructive behaviors as a way of attempting to regulate the overwhelming feelings caused by trauma.
  • Those who have experienced trauma can disconnect from themselves in order to numb their feelings to avoid experiencing the intense emotional discomfort of traumatic stress.

Lessons/implications for teaching:

  • Feeling inexplicably ill–experiencing a variety of physical ailments that seemingly have no root cause–is a common reaction to trauma.
  • Students who have experienced trauma can view the world through a lens of hostility–their “map” of the world predicts and assumes that danger and hurt is unpredictably around every corner. This has significant implications on their (lack of) feeling of safety, a prerequisite for calming down enough to focus and learn.
  • Feeling safe and calm is the opposite of the terror and intense negative physical sensations associated with trauma. Learning can happen only when students feel safe, calm, and in control.
  • “Problem behaviors” often begin as ways of “defending” the student from having to feel some of the intense negative emotions and physical sensations. For example, to avoid feeling alone and unaccepted, a student may engage in distracting, attention seeking behavior.
  • Art, music, recess, gym, theater, play, and movement–activities that allow us to be in sync with one another through physical movement–are incredibly therapeutic for students who have experienced trauma.
  • If we want to help students who have experienced trauma, providing opportunities for connection–particular connection that does not require language (i.e. music, play)–can help students to feel “in sync” with the people around them and to initiate feelings of safety necessary for resolving trauma.

Key Quotes:

Trauma’s effects:

“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable psychological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases” (53).

“The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed” (66).

“Ordinary day-to-day events become less and less compelling. Not being able to deeply take in what is going on around them makes it impossible to feel fully alive” (67).

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from themselves” (97).

“Many of my patients respond to stress not by noticing and naming it but by developing migraine headaches or asthma attacks” (97).

“[In traumatized children] the most innocent images stirred up intense feelings of danger, aggression, sexual arousal, and terror… we could only conclude that for abused children, the whole world is filled with triggers. As long as they can imagine only disastrous outcomes to relatively benign situations, anybody walking into a room, and stranger, any image, on a screen or a billboard might be perceived as a harbinger of catastrophe” (108).

As the ACE score rises, chronic depression in adulthood also rises dramatically. For those with an ACE score of four or more, its prevalence is 66 percent in women and 35 percent in men, compared with an overall rate of 12 percent in those with an ACE score of zero” (146).

“Traumatized people are often afraid of feeling. It is not so much the perpetrators (who, hopefully, are no longer around to hurt them) but their own physical sensations that are now the enemy. Apprehension about being hijacked by uncomfortable sensations keeps the body frozen and the mind shut. Even though the trauma is a thing of the past, the emotional brain keeps generating sensations that make the sufferer feel scared and helpless. It’s not surprising that so many trauma survivors are compulsive eaters and drinkers, fear making love, and avoid many social activities: Their sensory world is largely off limits” (208).


“Social support is a biological necessity, not an option, and this reality should be the backbone of all prevention and treatment” (167).

“Learning how to breathe calmly and remaining in a state of relative physical relaxation, even while accessing painful and horrifying memories, is an essential tool for recovery” (207).

“At the core of recovery is self-awareness. The most important phrases in trauma therapy are ‘Notice that’ and ‘What happens next?'” (208).

“Study after study shows that having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized. Safety and terror are incompatible” (210).

“While human contact and attunement are the wellspring of physiological self-regulation, the promise of closeness often evokes fear of getting hurt, betrayed and abandoned” (211).

“Once you recognize that post-traumatic reactions started off as efforts to save your life, you may gather the courage to face your inner music (or cacophony), but you will need help to do so. You have to find someone you can trust enough to accompany you, someone who can safely hold your feelings and help you listen to the painful messages from your emotional brain” (211).

“When we play together, we feel physically attuned and experience a sense of connection and joy… the moment you see a group of grim-faced people break out in a giggle, you know that the spell of misery has broken” (215).

“People who actively do something to deal with a disaster–rescuing loved ones or strangers, transporting people to a hospital, being part of a medical team, pitching tents or cooking meals–utilize their stress hormones for their proper purpose and therefore are at much lower risk of becoming traumatized” (217).

“How well we get along with ourselves depends largely on our internal leadership skills–how well we listen to our different parts, make sure they feel taken care of, and keep them from sabotaging one another” (280).

Conclusions/policy recommendations:

“Poverty, unemployment, inferior schools, social isolation, widespread availability of guns, and substandard housing are all breeding grounds for trauma. Trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt other people” (348).

“We are fundamentally social creatures–our brains are wired to foster working and playing together. Trauma devastates the social-engagement system and interferes with cooperation, nurturing, and the ability to function as a productive member of the clan” (349).

“People can learn to control and change their behavior, but only if they feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions. The body keeps the score: If trauma is encoded in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching sensations, then our first priority is to help people move out of fight-or-flight states, reorganize their perception of danger, and manage relationships. Where traumatized children are concerned, the last things we should be cutting from school schedules are the activities that can do precisely that: chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else that involves movement, play, and other forms of joyful engagement” (349).

“Children and adults will do anything for people they trust and whose opinion they value. But if we feel abandoned, worthless, or invisible, nothing seems to matter. Fear destroys curiosity and playfulness” (350).

“People who feel safe and meaningfully connected with others have little reason to squander their lives doing drugs or staring numbly at television; they don’t feel compelled to stuff themselves with carbohydrates or assault their fellow human beings. However, if nothing they do seems to make a difference, they feel trapped and become susceptible to the lure of pills, gang leaders, extremist religions, or violent political movements–anybody and anything that promises relief” (351).

“The greatest hope for traumatized, abused, and neglected children is to receive a good education in schools where they are seen and known, where they learn to regulate themselves, and where they can develop a sense of agency” (351).

“It is standard practice in many schools to punish children for tantrums, spacing out, or aggressive outbursts–all of which are often symptoms of traumatic stress. When that happens, the school, instead of offering a safe haven, becomes yet another traumatic trigger. Angry confrontations and punishment can at best temporarily halt unacceptable behaviors, but since the underlying alarm system and stress hormones are not laid to rest, they are certain to erupt again at the next provocation” (353).



What are your experiences working with kids with trauma? Are there other resources you would suggest or strategies you have developed to help students cope? Leave a comment–I would love to hear your thoughts!