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Ways to Support Students Affected by Academic Trauma

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

In a world where traumatic experiences are becoming increasingly common, understanding the effects of trauma on individuals, especially young students, is crucial.

This article delves into the various forms of trauma and how they impact learning and academic performance, while also exploring the concept of educational trauma.

With statistics highlighting that one in four American school-aged students has undergone a traumatic experience, it's essential to recognize the signs and provide appropriate support.

From PTSD to executive dysfunction, we discuss the challenges faced by students and the importance of trauma-informed strategies for teachers, parents, and school counselors.

Discover how executive function coaching can empower students on their journey towards healing and academic success, ultimately creating a safer, more supportive learning environment for all.

Table of Contents

What is trauma?

Trauma is a widespread issue caused by experiencing an event that may be emotionally distressing or life-threatening, which can have long-term negative impacts on a person's mental, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Some examples may be domestic violence, memoirs from a natural disaster, sexual or substance abuse, or other traumatic events.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) reports that for America's youth:

"one in four school aged students has undergone traumatic experiences”

Because experiencing a traumatic event could significantly affect a student's concentration, memory, information processing, problem-solving and planning, it is crucial to think of trauma as an educational concern.

What is educational trauma?

This term can refer to a range of experiences that impact a person's ability to learn and succeed academically. Some common types of school-based trauma include:

  • Learning disabilities and differences: undiagnosed or untreated learning differences, such as dyslexia or ADHD, can impact a student's ability to feel safe, access, and engage in the classroom setting. (Read about how to support your student with ADHD here!)

  • Bullying and harassment: these experiences can have a significant impact on the emotional and psychological well-being of young people, making it difficult for them to focus on work and show successful academic performance.

  • Academic pressure and expectations: whether from parents, educators, or peers, academic pressure can also result in academic trauma for students, particularly if they feel overburdened or inadequately supported by educators, social workers, or school staff.

  • Discrimination and prejudice: an individual's race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation can affect their capability to learn and feel successful at school. Students feel often unsupported in this aspect.

  • School safety and security: instances of violence in school, like a school shooting, can also result in academic trauma since students may experience a sense of insecurity or anxiety at school.

Here's how trauma can show up in the classroom

There are many signs of childhood trauma.

Childhood trauma can often bear a resemblance to symptoms of other diagnoses. These behaviors may appear similar to:

  1. Anxiety

  2. ADHD- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

  3. Depression

  4. IED- intermittent explosive disorder

Now that you know this, pay close attention to these academic-related signs of students who may have undergone traumatic events in class or the school setting:

Cognitive and learning-related signs of trauma in the classroom:

  • difficulty concentrating in class

  • being easily distracted

  • test anxiety

  • trouble adapting to changes

  • reduced memory capacity

Emotional signs of trauma that interfere with learning:

  • lack of motivation

  • low self-esteem

  • social anxiety

  • difficulty with emotional regulation

  • intrusive thoughts

Behavioral signs of a traumatic event experience:

  • angry outbursts

  • avoiding peers and teachers

  • hyper-vigilance

  • lower grades

  • trouble with eye contact

  • conflict with peers

What is PTSD?

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition triggered by the intense stress of traumatic events.

Traumatized students can develop PTSD when they don't feel they are in a safe environment or are involved in either emotional or physical injuries or the threat of such harm.

Students with PTSD may:

  • seem irritable, anxious, cranky, or angry

  • may become easily startled or excessively responsive to sounds, sights, or odors that resemble or evoke memories of the traumatic event.

  • seem depressed or detached

  • have trouble eating or sleeping

  • have difficulties paying attention or focusing

  • steer clear of individuals, locations, objects, or activities that trigger memories of the event.

It is important to note that not every student who has been through trauma will have post traumatic stress disorder. Most won’t. But they may show PTSD-like symptoms for a short time, and need support.
It's okay to ask for help. stop the stigma. Show them it's okay to speak up.
Ask for help

How to support students with trauma and PTSD

Students with acute stress disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder may need to take medicine to treat anxiety, miss class time to talk with school counselors, mental health professionals, or social workers, and may be awarded extra time to do class work.

Note that:

Healing and growth can be simultaneous processes. We don’t need to wait until something is fixed before we work on building our strengths. This is a core part of healing psychological struggles.

Trauma-informed strategies for teachers and school counselors:

  • provide referrals to a qualified mental health professional

  • give access to classroom accommodations tailored to the student's needs

  • cultivate a warm, surrounding community to support students

  • practice listening, encouragement, and support with understanding with the student

  • offer extra support with schoolwork in the classroom and at home

Five positive teaching techniques to use in the classroom: 1. cultivate positive relationships within the classroom. 2. take brain breaks to build positive energy. 3. create an open environment. 4. introduce positive communication. 5. practice resilience. 6. name strengths
Positive Teaching Techniques

What can parents/ family members do to support the effects of childhood trauma?

While academic trauma can result in severe and long-lasting consequences, students can recover with the assistance of empathetic and caring adults. Here are some helpful suggestions to consider:

  1. Identify trauma triggers- look out for abnormal behavior or reactions and avoid circumstances that cause anxiety or outbursts until healing occurs.

  2. Respond and reassure- avoid triggering an overwhelmed child with your reactions. Stay composed by lowering your voice and acknowledging their emotions. This will make them feel safe.

  3. Don't take the behavior personally- provide students with the space to experience their emotions freely without criticism. Provide support in finding words for expressing emotions and reward their use.

  4. Help them relax- motivate them to practice slow breathing, listening to calming music, or affirming positive statements like "I am safe now".

  5. Create a routine- develop a regular routine for meals, academic work, and bedtime. Prepare your child in advance for changes or new experiences.

  6. Encourage self-regulation- positive experiences can help children recover from trauma and build resilience.

  7. Be emotionally and physically available- traumatized children may distance themselves from adults. Offer attention, comfort, and encouragement in ways that they accept. Be patient if they seem needy and follow their lead.

Trauma-Informed care cheat sheet

Can PTSD cause executive dysfunction?

First, let's discuss what executive functions are in order to then elaborate on the term "executive dysfunction."

Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that help us achieve our goals. They help us solve problems, control stress, pay attention, learn, make decisions, and control our behavior by regulating the nervous system.

These processes are important for everyday life and are controlled by our brain in a way that helps us do things in a planned and efficient manner.

executive functions skills are impulse control, emotional control, organization, task initiation, planning and prioritizing, self-monitoring, working memory and flexible thinking.
Executive Functions Graph

So, how can PTSD affect our executive functioning skills?

When students have a trauma history and experience trauma and high stress, they may face difficulty with their learning process, like having trouble concentrating, analyzing problems, and prioritizing tasks.

Stress can also interfere with their ability to control their impulses, self-soothe, and plan.

PTSD can affect how well we use our executive functions (EF), which are responsible for things like decision-making, self regulation and problem-solving. If someone has PTSD, they may have trouble with executive functions, regardless of how intense their PTSD symptoms are.

How can Executive Function coaching help?

Executive function coaching can help by improving the academic outcomes of students with PTSD. Here, through trauma-informed strategies, students learn coping skills through self regulation and monitoring, as well as tools to structure to their routine.

Most students will implement executive function strategies in their classroom at school, in their family home and in the event of seeking social support with teachers, students, or other school staff. This process will provide structure to students' lives, as well as awarding them with the space to feel safe, provide structure, and build resilience in their day-to-day lives.

While supporting students, most of them will feel a sense of empowerment as the stress begins to shed, and they are more readily able to move from one task to the next task by managing strategies such as planning, task initiation and time management.

Executive function coaching promotes a family-child connection which in turn not only encourages students to create a trusting relationship with their parents but also inspires them to build resilience in a safe, supporting environment.

Without a doubt, continuing to build confidence in our students is a priority as it will prepare students to talk about their experienced trauma.

Through this practice, they open up about school mental health, and experiences with emotional abuse, substance abuse, or other trauma. Reach out today to learn more about how our executive function coaching program can support your student by awarding them a safe space to create, grow, and establish ongoing support.

Author Bio

Gal Sharony is an executive function specialist and educational psychologist with EFS. She has helped students overcome learning and emotional difficulties by specializing in socio-emotional skill development and providing specialized support to help students achieve academic success.

Gal uses evidence-based practices to help create a more effective, equitable and inclusive learning space. She loves spending time with her family, enjoying the outdoors, painting and taking pictures, and doing yoga.

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1 Comment

Apr 11, 2023

Great article! Thanks for brining this issue to light, @Gal Sharony!


About 👋

EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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