Introduction to Diverse Learners: Trauma

by Becky Bollinger

Not all learning disabilities are internal or genetic. Traumatic experiences like neglect, violence, or injury can physically alter a child’s brain, making it difficult for to behave and learn normally. In this fifth and final installment of the diverse learners series, Becky describes how trauma works and how teachers can make their classrooms feel safe to students scarred by trauma.

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We have discussed numerous specific disabilities, but there are many other factors that can impact a child’s development, a child’s ability to learn. One of these factors that I want us to consider is the role of trauma and attachment in a child’s development.

Defining Trauma

So what is trauma? Trauma is when a person experiences or observes an event that involved threatened or actual physical injury, or a threat to the safety and security of self, or important others in a person’s life. This traumatic event becomes traumatizing to the child. When it involves this intense fear, helplessness, terror, other really unmanageable emotions. Then, in the response, that is what makes it traumatic to them. This could be a singular event or a onetime thing. Or also it could involve complex event, things that are ongoing.

And risk factors of a trauma response include things like difficult pregnancy or birth, early hospitalization, neglect, abuse, trauma like in a war or even like system effects like the trauma of separation from birth parents in adoption.

Upstairs and Downstairs Brain

A traumatic event can significantly impact brain development. And I would like us to imagine that my hand is a brain, so my fingers up here will represent the cerebrum, which could be known as the upstairs brain or thinking brain. This part of the brain is not wired at birth. It’s the part that allows us to think, remember things, plan, to regulate our emotions, to learn. This would be our learning brain.

Then underneath here, my thumb and the lower part of my hand is going to represent the limbic system. And this is known as the could be known as the downstairs brain or survival brain. And this part of the brain is wired at birth. It allows the newborn to eat, sleep, drink, stay warm, or stay cool. Also, the reflexes that a newborn is born with are all wired down here in the downstairs brain. So if a child spends too much time being afraid or never receives comfort or help regulating his emotions from an adult or like he’s forced to fend for himself, what happens is the downstairs brain, his survival brain, overdevelops, and then his upstairs thinking brain remains undeveloped.

That first year of life is so critical to healthy brain development and healthy attachment relationships. During that time, the infant is so dependent on his caregiver that whenever that care is not provided, then it completely changes how the child develops. And what can happen is that this neglect or abuse, those kinds of things, can lead to insecure attachment where a child doesn’t trust other people in his life and he lives in this survival mode—”I have to fend for myself”—and then he’s not at rest and really able to do the upstairs brain things of thinking and learning.


Perhaps you have heard of the term “trigger.” What is a trigger? That is something that activates this limbic system, the downstairs brain, causing the child to go into survival mode. And then the thinking, parts of his brain shut down. And so trauma memories can be triggered. Usually they’re triggered by sensory things. So any of the five senses, something that you see or smell or hear, that reminds you of the traumatic event can be a trigger. And those triggers are different for every individual.

Other things similar like specific people that remind you of someone or places or feelings, for example, if someone… Or I heard of someone who, when they went into a city and saw these tall buildings that reminded them of the orphanage where they had grown up, or certain scents, specific times of the year, dramatic shifts in plans—all of these things could be a trigger to a child. And so sometimes we might need to help them understand why are they feeling so afraid uptight over these certain situations that we wouldn’t perceive as being dangerous or something to be feared.

So what happens when a child experiences a trigger of some sort? There’s various responses that they can have. And so those three responses are fight, flight, and freeze. And probably the most common that I have seen in my classroom is the freezing, which is like we shut down, we’re not able to think anymore. We’re not able to move forward. And maybe one day you completely can solve this math paper, no problem. And the next day your brain freezes up, and it seems like you don’t know it anymore. Some of those things can show up when a child is experiencing triggers, things that are causing their lower brains to take over instead of their thinking brain.

Regulating Emotions

One of the things that a child who’s experienced trauma can struggle with is regulating their emotions. And I think it’s helpful to think about our emotions as like they’re in a thermometer. So we hopefully have a low baseline, as in the red in our thermometer is down close to the bottom. And when something happens to upset us, like we stub our toe or we lose a game or someone said something unkind to us, the red, our temperature will rise a little bit, but it will stay within a manageable emotional level, and then we’ll return back to normal again.

What happens in trauma is that a child’s baseline, their level of emotions, is going to start closer to the top of the thermometer to begin with. And so they’re always going to be up there because they’re kind of on edge. They’re easily become afraid. It’s that survival. They’re watching what’s happening around them. And so they’re not a restful place like we would wish for. And so when their baseline is higher, then it happens a lot quicker that something sets them off that you have this volcano effect or anger or even violence, throwing something. That can happen because or when their emotions get out of hand.

Three Pillars of Trust-Based Relational Intervention

So when we recognize that a child is struggling with the results of trauma that they’ve experienced, what is the path to healing? TBRI stands for Trust-Based Relational Intervention. And this is this model of therapy that was developed by someone known as Karyn Purvis. And there’s many videos online describing this. She talks in depth about understanding children who have experienced trauma. So I really encourage you to check some of those out. But in the model of TBRI, there are three main pillars, three things that are kind of the core of what they believe.

The first one is felt safety. And this is the idea that there’s a difference between a child being safe and a child feeling safe. And so the child will be completely safe in my classroom, but they might not perceive that they are. And this is different for different children. So one child might feel safer if they’re up front because they’re closer to the teacher, and another child might feel safer because they’re in the back of the room and there’s no one behind them. And so they can see more of what’s going on, and they feel safer in that location.

The second pillar is connection. It’s been said that if harm has happened through relationship, the only way for healing is through relationship. And just that connection is so important that children believe that we have their back, and they’re going to push back on that relationship because it doesn’t feel safe. They don’t want to be hurt again. And so that’s why when a child has been adopted, they can really push back against the mother figure, the father figure in their life because of their distrust of relationship.

The third component is self-regulation. And so we need to create an environment that helps the child regulate, kind of models, what it’s like to regulate self, to manage stressors as well. And so each of these pillars need to be present in this healing relationship as part of TBRI.

Hearing From the Student

When we understand trauma and its impact, it really changes how we view, or we start to shift the way we see our students and their challenging behaviors. A child might be doing something that they should not be, and we could view it as willful disobedience, like, “They have chosen to disobey. And so I’m going to punish them, and you’re going to have a power struggle here.”

When we recognize that maybe this behavior has a different root or a different cause, if we view it as a survival behavior, like, “Oh, they’re doing this because this is how their brain is wired. This is how they’ve learned to make sense of their world.” It changes how we approach it.

I think we should view this behavior as a cry for help. Like, what is a child trying to communicate to us? What’s the reason behind their behavior and what does he really need? How can I meet that need in his life? There are some general principles that we can follow to create a trauma-informed classroom or a classroom that is functioning in such a way that a child who’s experienced trauma can feel safe, that they can thrive.

And these principles really are helpful for all of the students in our classrooms.

Belonging, Community, and Structure

First, we need to create a sense of belonging, a sense of community. “You are one of us. You belong here. Listen well to each other.” Teach our students to care for each other, to listen to each other.

We also need to have a classroom that’s designed for regulation, giving opportunities for movement, also keeping things simple in our classrooms, giving snack breaks and opportunity to get a drink. Even things like classroom pets and the sound of water flowing in a fish tank can be helpful in helping a child with trauma to regulate. Words like predictability, consistency, stability, all of those things are really, really important in a trauma-informed classroom.

Also, as we think about managing our classrooms, we need to have a high level of structure or routine, a certain level of expectations in our classroom. But we have to make sure we balance that with the relationship part, the nurturing, love, affection. If we have high structure and high nurture in our classrooms, that would be a place where our students can thrive. When a child feels safe and understood, we think back to our brain. When he feels safe and understood, his lid will stay down and he’ll be able to engage his thinking brain and make progress. If the classroom doesn’t feel safe to him, he’s going to flip his lid. His lid is going to be up, and he’s going to be in survival mode, watching his surroundings. “Is this a safe place for me to be.”

And so we want our classrooms to be places of rest, places where our students can thrive. When we are working with a child who has been adopted, a child who has experienced trauma in those early years of life, it’s going to be very important that we communicate well with his parents and that there’s this team effort as we try to identify, what are triggers for this student? How can we help them when they are struggling with behaviors at school and at home?

Communication with Parents

Because of the child’s lack of trust and healthy relationships, they can tend to use triangulation, which is this trying to set the two authority figures in their lives, to set them against each other. This is part of his survival strategies to protect himself from being hurt again, to try to stay in control of what’s happening around him. And so it’s going to be critical that parents and teachers are communicating, perhaps frequently, to work with the difficulties that they’re experiencing. As teachers, I think we need to ask questions, ask questions of parents. What are you seeing at home? What do you do when your child is struggling with this behavior?

Do you have recommendations for what I could do differently and listen well to parents, listen to what they’re saying and work with them. If parents and schools are a team, it’s going to be hugely helpful in providing this place of security, this place where a student can make progress, that they can move toward healing.

Correct Identification

In general, as we think about these challenges, it’s important to realize that one difficulty can look like another. So, for example, when a child has come from hard places, it can look like a severe case of ADHD. Or when a child is experiencing trauma, it could look like dyslexia because they’re struggling to learn to read when really maybe what’s going on is this trauma piece that’s inhibiting their ability to learn.

Also it’s not uncommon for children to experience multiple things at once. So maybe they have dyslexia and ADHD. Maybe they have experienced trauma and they have ADHD and so it can be really challenging to pick apart those pieces, kind of figure out, “where do we start here?” And I think it’s important to identify what’s maybe the biggest problem here and let’s start with that. We can’t tackle it all at once, but pick one thing.

Set specific goals that you can work toward that feel maybe attainable to the student, to the parents, to you as the teacher.

I’ve worked with children from hard places, and it’s not easy. Most of all, I think we need to remember, in the words of Karyn Purvis, that each child is precious and there is hope for them. God bless you as you love the children in your care.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Becky Bollinger


Introduction to Diverse Learners
Publication Date: May 6, 2021
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