Scanlan Center for School Mental Health
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What to Do When Students Have Experienced Trauma

Tara Tedrow headshot
Tara Tedrow headshot
written by

Tara Tedrow

Educator Wellness
Teaching & Learning

Have you ever looked at a student or asked them a simple question and it just set them off?

Then for the next week, you replay the interaction in your head a million times, trying to figure out what it was you said or did that made them angry?

The answer, while deep and hidden from plain sight, may be simple. 

That student has likely experienced trauma. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2 out of 3 children have experienced at least one traumatic event by the age of 16.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) 

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-Kaiser Permanente study (Felitti et al., 1998) identified 3 major categories of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs): 

– abuse

– neglect

– household dysfunction

The Kaiser Permanente study found that if a student has 4 or more ACEs, they can experience significantly increased health risks later in life.

The original ACEs have been expanded to include bullying, community violence, natural disasters, refugee or wartime experiences, and witnessing or experiencing acts of terrorism.

(For the purposes of this blog, trauma and adverse childhood experiences are interchangeable terms.)

How are ACEs and sudden emotion connected? 

So, what do ACEs have to do with a child suddenly presenting strong emotions to a seemingly innocent event or interaction?  

Childhood trauma can present a myriad of issues for a student which could lead to classroom difficulties such as sudden outbursts, withdrawal, abrupt changes in behavior, and inability to get along with peers.

Individuals who have experienced childhood trauma are commonly misdiagnosed with other disorders such as ADHD due to similar symptomology. This relationship gets tricky because they can coexist as well. Therefore, it is imperative the student undergo a complete and thorough assessment (Lukomski et al., 2021).

There’s also research that shows white and gray matter in the brain is not as robust in children who have been traumatized. The amount of white and gray matter in the brain is important to consider as it is connected to increased academic outcomes, behavior regulation, and social skills (Peverill et al., 2022).

When a child has experienced trauma or continues to experience trauma, their flight, fight, or freeze system constantly operates on an elevated level, rather than the typical ‘when needed’ function which happens when humans encounter a traumatic event.

When a student’s neural system is continuously activated, an innocent or routine action could trigger an outburst or gush of emotions. 

When this happens, the brain falls back on the feeling or experiences endured during past traumatic moments.

For example, if a child is raised in a combative family, where fights are a common occurrence, they will more likely use physical or verbal aggression during stressful situations than engage in flight or freeze.

Simply knowing this can immediately impact how educators approach and strengthen relationships with students.

4 TIES tips for working with students that have experienced trauma

The great news is that research has also shown that a positive healthy relationship with a caring adult, such as an educator, can reverse some of these neural and behavioral effects.  

If you are looking to add to your trauma-informed toolbox, here are 4 TIES strategies to support students who have experienced trauma or may be showing signs of experienced trauma. 

TIES - Trust-Building, Initiate Connections, Environment, Strengthen Relationships

#1 Trust Building

Trust is hard to earn and is easily taken away. Be truthful, honest, and authentic with your students.

Give them grace, but do not lower expectations. Rather let them know that you are supporting them and that you believe in them and that they can meet those expectations.

Trust-building can also come in the form of making sure they feel seen and heard. As simple as it may be, say and spell students’ names correctly. Also, a quick check-in and check-out for the day can be very meaningful for a student. Acknowledging students in and outside the classroom tells them they are seen and valued, even if it is a quick “Hi”. 

#2 Initiate Connections

You are not a therapist but try to connect your students in need with supportive resources that can help them excel in school and in life.

When my own children are having a hard time I tell them, “You don’t have to talk to me but talk to someone.” This could apply to your students as well.

At the beginning of the school year, have key personnel such as the principal, associate principal(s), counselors, facilitators, and engagement specialists, visit your classroom to talk to the students. 

The idea is to have them identify people they could go to when they are having a hard time. This circle of support activity is a simple tool you can use with students to help them identify trusted adults.

It’s also important to let your students know if you ever talk about something in class that may be traumatizing or in this case, re-traumatizing, that they should feel comfortable coming to you and letting you know.

A subtle cue could also be used when a student is in need, such as a code word or gesture. These must be individualized, so the other students are not aware of what is happening. 

#3 Environment

Trauma in education research continues to grow, but one thing remains true, a supportive caring teacher can help a student succeed in the classroom.

If a student has been set off, try to de-escalate the situation as quickly and calmly as possible, and most importantly, do not engage. 

For example, if a student is screaming at the top of their lungs, do not scream back, rather speak in a normal or soft tone of voice.

And most importantly, do so without embarrassing or humiliating the student.

Another strategy would be to ask the student to go with you, or another school official, to a safe place.  One thing you do not want to do is to tell the student to “use their words.”

When the limbic system in the brain is heightened, the left hemisphere of the brain (language) is not as active. It is best to reduce their heart rate and get them to a calm state as quickly as possible.  

If you notice a student is starting to have anxiety or even a full-blown panic attack, use the 3-3-3 rule. Tell them to name three things they see, three things they hear, and move three parts of their body.

Another method is the 5-5-5 rule. Tell them to breathe in for five seconds, hold it for five seconds, and exhale for five seconds. 

#4 Strengthen Relationships

Don’t underestimate the power of routine questions and activities.

Every day, find a way to ask how they are doing. They may let you know that they didn’t sleep very well the night before, they are hungry, are sad about a friendship going sour, or a parent was just incarcerated. Any nugget of information can help you better understand and support them.  

At the beginning of every school year, I confidentially ask each student to tell me one thing that I should know about them that will help me be the best teacher I can be. “I wish my teacher knew” is an excellent short activity that can be applied to all grade levels.   

Find as many favorable things as possible that you can comment on about the student’s performance, even if it is that they were on time to class or brought a writing utensil. You can also relay those to their family to initiate positive communication at home. 

It is important to look for the positives, even on those difficult days, and I would argue, those are the days it is most important. 

Use these TIES strategies to improve your trauma-informed toolbox to make a difference in students’ lives! 

Tara Tedrow is currently a research graduate assistant at the Scanlan Center for School Mental Health Clinic and a doctoral student in Special Education at the University of Iowa College of Education. 


Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258. 

Peverill, M., Rosen, M. L., Lurie, L. A., Sambrook, K. A., Sheridan, M. A., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2022). Childhood trauma and brain structure in children and adolescents. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience59, 101180. 

Lukomski, M., Caruso, D., Thompson, K., & Di Natale, M. (2022). A program to improve the assessment of a child for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing35(2), 164–170. 

McLaughlin, K. A., Sheridan, M. A., Humphreys, K. L., Belsky, J., & Ellis, B. J. (2021). The value of dimensional models of early experience: Thinking clearly about concepts and categories. Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, 16(6).