Enhancing Resilience in
Children Who Have Experienced Trauma
Laurie Prusso Hatch, MEd., CPDT, CPDPE
For those of us who work with children and their families, ours is the opportunity to touch lives, to heal lives, and to change lives. We will do this most effectively when we truly understand and, without judgment, criticism or blame, we guide, serve, wait patiently, and walk beside others through their journey in a spirit of support and encouragement. As we include and welcome all children in our programs, we will encounter some who have been exposed to abuse, neglect, and a variety of types of trauma.
The nurturing care of children is education. The two are not separate functions or actions. They are inseparably connected. The overarching essence of all work in the field of child development and education is nurturing relationships. We do not nurture strong relationships at the expense of enhancing learning, but because relationships can enhance learning. Effective, caring relationships lead behavior and learning. No other effort will be successful without the necessary safety, security and care that all human beings, and especially children, need. For children and families who struggle, this is especially true.
Conversely, if we focus on controlling behavior and the teaching and learning of content—standards and outcomes—in the absence of connection, support, worth, and collaborative community, many children will be left out of the learning process and the opportunities that exist in the world. If we focus only on academic teaching, we will miss the opportunity to cultivate real learners.
If we want to bring peace to the world we will have to begin with those who teach and rear the children.
Trauma and Toxic Stress
Trauma is defined as severe or repeated exposure to harmful experiences without the support of caring adults that can cause toxic stress responses in children. These experiences, which can weaken the brain’s architecture, may leave children vulnerable to a range of health, learning, and behavior problems across their lifespan (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Rockville, STATE, 2014).
It is the stress system, in response to a threat or perceived threat that causes the long-term problems in our bodies. This is how it works.
“When you encounter a perceived threat — a large dog barks at you during your morning walk, for instance — your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear” (Mayo Clinic Staff).
One of the results of trauma and toxic stress is the development of habitual reactive patterns of behaviors in the child. These behaviors are often created as protective responses, and help the child to lessen the painful emotions he would otherwise feel in response to threat and danger. This is referred to as hypervigilance. Because the early brain processes threat and emotion together, the neural system becomes highly sensitized to repeated events and becomes hypervigilant, or overly on guard—in a permanent state of high alert.
Children may develop reactivity that resembles the reaction to something very dangerous by becoming highly active, agitated, anxious, angry and enraged, and full of sadness (Szalavitz, 2010). Alternately, children may numb themselves and surrender or tune out, withdrawing from the event, realizing that they cannot escape.
These protective but socially ineffective behaviors represent reactivity, or the inability to assess a situation and respond with flexibility. Response flexibility is an element of and predictor of mental health. When we are safe and secure and an incident occurs, we can weigh the event’s likely effect on us, whether we are in danger or not, and consider multiple ways to respond. When we have a hypervigilant reactive system, everything is a threat and we do not have response flexibility.
In our work with children, we frequently tell children who overreact, “It was an accident. She just bumped into you,” and expect them to understand and manage their feelings and responses to the “bump.” But for children who have experienced abuse, neglect, ongoing uncertainty, and anxiety, there is no such thing as an accident.
What, then, shall we do in our work to touch the lives of children? Our task is to provide the protective factors and buffering relationships that will tap into children’s inherent ability to be and become resilient.
Resiliency is the ability of people who have been exposed to “high risk” conditions to develop social competence despite exposure to severe stress or neglect and to overcome the odds to lead successful lives (Sharp-Light, 2007).
The effects of trauma can be buffered, that is lessened, and even healed in the contexts of relationships and environments in which children receive the nurture, care, and respect that they need. Adults support the long-term healing and well being of children in our care when we demonstrate the patience, gentle responses, attuned and timely encouragement, and sincere and mature guidance that they need. Protective relationships buffer the effects of trauma and toxic stress because they diminish the need for children to become hypervigilant and reactive and because they show children another way to feel and act.
When adults provide safe, secure, predictable, and caring relationships and environments, we tap into the existing potential for the child to connect with us. When we connect with care two things happen: First, we do not activate the hypervigilant neural pathway and a dose of cortisol in the child’s brain; and second, we stimulate the alternate neural pathway that can become kindness, empathy, delay of gratification, and critical thinking. In short, when we fill our classrooms and homes with love and kindness, patience and joy, children learn those very attributes and the learning naturally follows.
Effective, nurturing relationships are at the forefront in working with children who have histories of traumatic experiences and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Loving, knowledgeable, and skilled adults providing rich and joyful experiences for children can and will make a difference.
Honor the Role of Development
Emotional self-regulation skills become evident in children’s behavior in a reliably predictable sequence. Most healthy children demonstrate skills consistent with what we would predict. For instance, one would predict that in a toddler classroom there will be a lot of noise, including screaming, impulsive acts—such as taking objects from one another—, biting (many but not all), hitting, and dirty diapers. Our understanding of the reliable sequence of development prepares us for these behaviors so that we do not interpret them as misbehavior.
In children who have experienced trauma, neglect, and/or abuse, the typical developmentally-constrained behaviors are often exaggerated and extend well beyond the predictable timeline. For instance, tantrums are seen mostly in toddlers and have diminished greatly by the time most children are three. For healthy, well-cared for children, tantrums rarely occur in the fourth year unless there is a situational provocation. It is not uncommon, however, for five-, six-, and even seven- and eight-year-olds who have reactive hypervigilant behaviors to continue to tantrum in response to perceived injustice and other types of threat.
While many of the typical behaviors that teachers confront are to be expected relative to the developmental rollout of self-regulation and cognitive skills, when four- or five-year-olds behave more like three-year-olds, it can be much more frustrating and difficult to deal with. We are inclined to say, “He knows better,” or, “She does this deliberately!”
The Role of Early Childhood Professionals in Building Resilience
Early childhood is the time to recognize the trauma children bring and to create rich, happy, joyful, exciting, and active learning experiences. Supported by caring relationships with teachers, the effects of earlier experiences can be decreased and friendships, happiness, and love can grow. This is our great calling, our opportunity to touch lives and help children heal.
Research, ideas, and programs abound, but what you really need to know is that in order to heal and grow, children need to be loved and nurtured. In order to learn, children need joyful spaces and things to discover and explore. Rigid rules, too many adult-directed and -controlled periods of time, or activities that do not support healing or learning prevent healing and learning. Developmentally-appropriate experiences and exciting learning places filled with many opportunities for mistakes will feel welcoming and safe to children. The emergence of emotional self-regulation and social skills occur where there are caring adults to help children feel safe and learn from mistakes. This is all that is needed.
The activation of the hypervigilant, reactive neural response system, supported by the stress response, is referred to as re-traumatization. This occurs when children are involved in incidents similar to the trauma they have previously experienced. In addition, those neural pathways are accessed and activated when emotional responses in the child are similar to the emotions that were triggered in previous stressful events. Adults may inadvertently initiate a child’s reactivity through some typical teacher reactions to behavior.
Although the early childhood field and virtually all teachers, supervisors and directors have been exposed to trainings related to effective relationships with children and effective and caring ways to deal with challenging behaviors, there are ineffective and hurtful strategies and methods that still appear in many classrooms. There is no place for these teacher behaviors in our educational settings. Adults may be triggered by a child’s behavior and resort to these reactions, which then re-traumatize or invite further reactive behavior from the child. Some of these adult behaviors are:
- threatening the child;
- telling the child that they will not be allowed to participate in some way such as withholding outdoor time, etc.;
- removing the child from the group in angry, rejecting, or isolating ways (time-out);
- sending the child to a higher authority who then reprimands and punishes them;
- blaming and humiliating the child, especially in front of others; and
- assuming that the child is at fault and is almost always at fault (blame).
There are many more adult behaviors that may re-traumatize a child. As a rule, if the adult is impatient, frustrated, or angry, if the adult behavior is reactive rather than responsive, they are triggering the stress response system in the child rather than helping the child access more helpful neural systems. What we know about these interactions is that the child’s behavior does not improve and that children treated this way become hostile, resentful, and increasingly defiant.
To be clear, doing away with punishment and negative punishment does not mean that children do not learn to recognize mistakes and become increasingly responsible. In fact, they are more likely to take responsibility when they feel safe and know you will help them recover. We do not “let them get away with it” when we work with them to understand what happened, care for their brains, listen to and clarify other’s perspectives, and teach them more effective ways to get along. The kind of consequence is called a solution. The process builds critical thinking and social skills and is effective long term.
One of the most helpful concepts for adults to understand is the negative impact of blame. When there is a conflict or simply a mistaken behavior, we often move in to provide a consequence or punishment to the child who is to blame—the child who is at fault. “Who did this?” we ask. This puts us in an adversarial attitude and immediately interferes with our ability to have response flexibility and to support children in creating solutions, friendships, and engaging meaningfully in their learning. This is a representation of our own trigger.
Blame is our desire to stop the discomfort we experience from our own feelings; frustration, annoyance, interruption, anger, or any other emotion that has been triggered in us, by putting that discomfort on another (Brown, 2012). It is not helpful in the early childhood classroom or in any relational context. Blame allows us to believe that because someone made a mistake, we have the right to be disrespectful, invalidating, and/or hurtful in response. While adults do not like it when children are hurtful, say mean things, or reject other children, in many early childhood classrooms adults may be observed doing just those things. Our own pain and early experiences are triggered and our behavior is reactive.
The stress response and emission of cortisol is immediately triggered when children feel blamed, but it is especially troubling for a previously traumatized child who reverts to the hypervigilant reactive system and is likely to become defiant, explosive, angry, anxious, and unpredictable. When the child is reactive, their outbursts, invited by the threat, are intense, and the stress response strengthens the hypervigilant reactive system again.
When approaching a mistaken behavior or a conflict between children, it is important to be calm and to help children become calm. Our intention is to be curious and sincere about listening to children tell their stories of what happened, validating all, and then finding solutions. It is not effective to place blame, find fault, and punish. I have seen many intentional, effective teachers model caring guidance and skilled listening in response to children’s behavior.
Avoid negative consequences and all types of rewards or punishment in your classrooms and programs, replacing them with nurturing support, lots of listening and understanding, and powerful, helpful solutions. Solutions make things better, strengthen effective relationships, support friendships and improved behavior, and enhance learning. Punishment, rewards, and negative consequences make things worse, promote a sense of suspicion, competition, blame and insecurity, interfere with cooperation and friendships, and predict diminished learning.
When we use negative consequences, we threaten the connection between the child and ourselves and further discourage him, moving him away from the desired behavior. Instead of looking for blame, believing that the child needs to “pay for” their mistake, and applying negative consequences, we can learn how to connect, communicate, and work with the child to discover solutions.
Trauma- Informed Care has been developed in order to support the healing of hurting children in our classrooms. As we learned when we got better at supporting children with special needs, these skills, attitudes, and tools are better for all children. Based on a set of ideas, principles, and guidelines, the actions of adults become responsive and flexible, thus better meeting the needs of each child.
Principles and Elements of Trauma-Informed Care
In consideration of the principles of trauma-informed care, an adult caregiver:
- considers and understands what has happened (and what has not happened) to a person;
- recognizes the pervasive nature of trauma and the absence of emotional support and opportunities for learning appropriate behavior and skills;
- relates to and understands the complex nature and effects of trauma on children’s behavior and learning;
- creates and protects a sense of safety;
- builds relationships of trust;
- provides the development of personal power by creating choices;
- enhances children’s ability to collaborate; and
- empowers children in relationships and environments that value long-term development and learning.
(The Trauma-Informed Community Initiative (TICI) of Western New York and members of the Health Leadership Fellows Program Cohort V, 2016)
Once we know what children need, it becomes our desire and our obligation to provide that for them. Adult behaviors, in recognition of the effects of trauma on young children, are more reflective of the effective, nurturing, guiding responses that all children need and deserve.
Effective adult behaviors
- Every adult is respectful every time!
- Teachers see their role as supportive and being as effective as possible in caring for and teaching ALL children.
- Teachers recognize that they ARE that ONE caring adult who will enhance a child’s resilience.
- Administrators understand Trauma and provide training and emotional supports for teachers and staff in meeting the needs of children.
- Effective, caring, nurturing guidance and teaching replace behaviorist strategies such as, rewards and punishment, stickers and stars, pull-cards etc. (For alternative approaches, I recommend Positive Discipline © for Child Care Providers, by Jane Nelsen.)
- Coherent, attuned, listening, and effective problem solving are used to support a caring learning culture and to diminish hypervigilance and reactivity.
Appreciating Conflict as Opportunities to Teach and Heal
Intuitive and intentional teachers recognize that a situation that seems like a conflict is often the way children are trying to get their needs met. Conflict is an opportunity to guide children through the model for learning more effective ways to get along. Aggression is the name we give to behavior we see when children are provoked and their brain defers to the “fight” (or flight) reactive system. When we rush in and redirect or place blame, we miss the entire opportunity to teach listening skills, advocacy and personal power, empathy and perspective taking, and problem solving. These are the very skills that we all need to improve upon, but children who have experienced trauma will need extra help in this arena.
Your first job is to calm yourself and your second job is to help the children find their calm. This may mean positioning yourself in a non-threatening way (getting down to the child’s eye level) and speaking in a way that promotes safety. No blame, no anger, and no threatening are expressed, as these will trigger all children and put everyone on notice that you are angry and probably mean. Once everyone is calm, an objective comment to strengthen the safety can be made. “Wow. You are both crying and I heard some loud words over here. I wonder what happened. Can you tell me?”
When children speak, it is vital that we really listen and understand and let them know that we do understand. We do this by giving back to them a little of what they said. When everyone has been heard, we can invite solutions. Humor is the best tool here and when children say absurd things, you know they are relaxed and safe with you.
Here is a scenario that might invite a teacher to be reactive and disperse or redirect the children because they are arguing:
Three children entered the dramatic play area. They were initiating some pretend play and wanted to be firefighters. There were only two fire hats on the shelf. The children began to negotiate back and forth. Their voices got louder and louder, and they could not resolve this problem of limited resources. The teacher walked over to them calm and curious to help them learn. She sat on the floor with them and said, “Oh, there are three of you and only two fire hats. That is a problem.” She paused to assess their emotional states and proceeded with an invitation for them to tell what was going on. “Who can tell me what’s up here?” The children agreed with the first child’s assessment: “Well, there are more kids than hats!” The teacher queried with a sense of humor, “ Do you have any ideas?” It was apparent that they did not have any ideas yet, so she helped them mine for alternatives. “I wonder,” she said, “who else you might find where there are firefighters?” As they started to express their ideas, they became excited. “A police.” “An ambulance driver.” “A tow truck guy.” The ideas kept coming. One of the children said, “I’ll drive the tow truck.” The other two donned the fire hats and the play began. In this way, the children were able to remain friends, continue their play, solve a problem, feel safe and secure in their environment, and learn a life skill to use when there are limited resources.
Make a Difference
Childhood Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences seem to be everywhere we look today. The early childhood community has the opportunity to be a powerful source for effective and nurturing care and teaching that will make a difference in the lives of children and families. Skilled, intentional, caring teachers will take this chance, understand the problem, and recognize their role in the solutions.
All children deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. That is how they will become socially and emotionally healthy, well educated, and learn to contribute in our world. Children who have experienced trauma in their lives are especially vulnerable to typical school discipline policies and are re-traumatized by consequences, punishment, and any kind of criticism, rejection, blame, and/or humiliation. These types of adult reactions are harmful for all children and should be avoided. We can benefit from understanding the role of adult responses and the damage done by re-traumatization and how to avoid it in all of our interactions with all children.
Children who have experienced trauma present opportunities for us to discover and implement effective guidance and discipline policies that support all children and create caring communities in which they can learn and grow together. Children who have experienced trauma are the most likely to struggle in social situations and in the classroom, and the most likely to be punished for their behavior. This is called re-traumatization. Respectful and encouraging adult relationships are the key to helping children heal and to inviting them into the community of learners.
Teachers, administrators, and policy makers have to look critically at existing policies and turn away from those that don’t actually support children in learning better, doing better, getting better, and living better. When individual teachers, classroom environments, and school policies focus on inclusion, respectful relationships, problem solving, and creating caring communities, all children do better, learning improves, and classrooms and schools become real learning environments for all children.
Note: To get your ACEs score and find your resilience level, go to https://acestoohigh.com/
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly. New York, New York, USA: Gotham Books.
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Rockville, M. (2014). Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Retrieved January 17, 2017, from Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
Hartzell, D. S. Parenting From the Inside Out. New York, New York, USA: Tarcher/Penguin.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (n.d.). Stress Response. Retrieved January 19, 2017, from Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
Sharp-Light, B. B. (2007). Resiliency in Action: Practical Ideas for Overcoming Risks and Building Strengths in Youth, Families, and Communities. (N. Henderson, Ed.) Ojai, CA, USA: Resiliency in Action.
Szalavitz, M. a. (2010). Born for Love. New York, New York, USA: Harper Collins.
The Trauma Informed Community Initiative (TICI) of Western New York and members of the Health Leadership Fellows Program Cohort V. (2016). TIC-White Paper. (W. N. State, Producer) Retrieved January 17, 2017, from White Paper for Trauma Informed Care: https://socialwork.buffalo.edu/content/dam/socialwork/social-research/ITTIC/TIC-whitepaper.pdf
Laurie Prusso Hatch is a retired professor of Child Development. Laurie earned her BA in Human Development and Master’s degrees in Education at CSU Hayward. The mother of six grown children, Laurie has years of experience in the educational system. She is a certified Positive Discipline © Trainer and Parent Educator and has worked in a variety of early childhood settings for thirty years. Laurie is a consultant and trainer and specializes in effective adult-child relationships, ACEs and Trauma, enhancing resilience, staff relationships, and creating caring communities of learners. She provides dynamic and humorous workshops, keynote addresses and trainings. You can learn more about Laurie at her website, www.TeacherLaurie.com, or contact her directly at Laurieprusso@gmail.com.