Build a trauma-sensitive classroom where all learners feel safe

December 4, 2018

When young children experience chronic stress, it affects their sense of security. A caring teacher can create a new template about adults. Pre-K and kindergarten teachers play an especially important role because children’s early classroom experiences influence their perception of school for years to come.

In the United States, 34 million children have had at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) — ranging from abuse or neglect to parental incarceration or addiction. Children living in poverty are more likely to have multiple ACEs, compounding the effects of economic insecurity. In addition, the current opioid epidemic is devastating families and overwhelming the foster care system, and many school populations include refugee children who have fled dangerous conditions. Many classrooms in America are touched by trauma.

Patricia Jennings, associate professor at the University of Virginia and author of the new book The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, says that childhood trauma can have severe immediate and long-term consequences for students’ cognitive, social and emotional development.

Trauma and chronic stress change the way our bodies and brains react to the world. Part of that is protective, said Jennings. “Humans tend to adapt to chronic stress in order to be able to survive and thrive in challenging contexts. But these adaptive behaviors can impede success in the classroom context.” In school, children with trauma are more likely to have trouble regulating their emotions, focusing, and interacting with peers and adults in a positive way.