Why Children with Trauma Exhibit Poor Behavior Actually Have a Brain Injury and How to Help them Thrive in School

Childhood trauma is unfortunately prevalent in today’s society. As an educator, it is inevitable that you will have a student that has experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which can affect their behavior in the classroom and how well they do with their coursework. As an educator, you are devoted to helping support, protect and empower all of your students. But how can you help your students with childhood trauma thrive in the classroom? 

Understanding Childhood Trauma

Helping your students with trauma thrive starts with understanding the implications of childhood trauma. ACEs can be singular events or they can be ongoing or repeated. Some examples of ACEs include abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, observing a family member’s substance abuse, living with those with mental health issues, catastrophic weather events or even having an incarcerated family member. 

Repeated exposure to ACEs can leave a child in a constant state of fight or flight response. This causes stress sensitivity, issues trusting adults, as well as developmental and behavioral delays. Their inability to trust others can negatively affect their ability to form healthy relationships. It can also lead to “acting out,” bullying, being socially withdrawn, or even being uninterested in learning. 

Despite the fact that childhood trauma is an actual brain injury, children are resilient and so is the brain! The brain has the ability to create new connections and heal itself up through the age of 25. With knowledge and know-how, you can help support your students with childhood trauma and even help them thrive in learning and socially. 

Now let’s take a look at how educators can help their students with trauma heal and thrive in school. 

Build Trust

Students with trauma have problems trusting the adults in their life due to the traumas they have suffered from. This means that you have to build trust with these students. This is done through offering support, unconditional love, and safety. For example, gently remind your student with trauma that they can come to you with their problems, such as if they are being bullied. 

The Behavior is Bad, Not the Child

Remember that the child is not bad, their behavior is. Remembering this will help you deal properly with poor behavior when it does happen, and it will. These bad behaviors are often caused by developmental delays. These delays are not uncommon and we need to remember that we have to give children with trauma the space and time to heal at their own pace. This means teaching (or parenting) children where they are developmentally, not where they are chronologically. Dealing with bad behaviors and delays in development leads me to the issue of discipline for bad behaviors.  

Different Discipline Tactics

Often what society considers the norm for disciplining children can unfortunately retraumatize kids with trauma. This means that you have to learn new ways of disciplining children with trauma. Most children with trauma do not respond to implications, good or bad. This means they will not respond to the issuing of penalties or consequences. Instead of issuing consequences, instead offer support. Explain why their behavior was poor and help them learn and grow from the experience. Remember to be patient with them and to always show patience and love. 

Learning Disabilities

Children with trauma not only have developmental delays, but they also often experience a host of different learning disabilities. Children with trauma will most likely need an IEP. They will also need their special education teachers to advocate for them. 

Work Closely with the Parents

Adoptive parents understand very well what their child needs. They will also be heading up the efforts to help their child with trauma heal, which means ensuring that everyone on the support team, including educators, therapists and others, are on the same page. Think of it this way, if a basketball team goes on the court and each member of the team does a different play, they won’t score a basket. Each person on the team needs to be working together or little to no progress in healing will be made. 


By focusing on helping a student with trauma heal, you’ll begin to see them thrive in school both academically and socially. The process can take time, so have plenty of patience on hand. Remember, your student with trauma is a great child and just needs your love and support to heal and grow.