Preschool teacher facing trauma through the eyes of a 4-year olds

Preschool is a place where teachers facilitate learning through play, where young children are discovering the world around them, making friends without a care in the world. A place where most teachers have a background in early childhood or child development, training in early care best practices and anticipating preparing young children for higher learning.  Preschool teachers often expect children to show up with a clean slate ready to absorb information, but unfortunately, young children are showing up with far too many cares in their world that are impacting them socially, emotionally and academically.  

When teachers are busy educating our youngest minds, it is about lesson plans, curriculum, classroom environment, school readiness and soliciting parental support. These are just a few expectations or requirements of pre-k teachers. Nevertheless, teachers are ill-equipped and unprepared to meet the needs of our young children.  Unfortunately, few colleges and universities provided early childhood courses on the impact of trauma on a young child’s brain, self-regulation in the classroom, adverse childhood experiences, teacher self-care or how to work with young children of parents impacted by trauma. Yet more and more preschool teachers are faced with this critical issue every day.

Preschool student Tevon is a bright four years old male child in his first year of preschool. He enjoys coming to school daily where the preschool van picks him up and drops him off at home in the late afternoon. Tevon likes to play with small cars and blocks but you can always find him in the housekeeping area reenacting snapshots of his home life experiences. 

The teacher greets each child at the door daily to create a positive climate and to observe any behaviors or emotions that she may need to help manage throughout the day. Tevon greets the teacher one morning and asked her, “why he had to wear the same clothes from yesterday?” During breakfast he takes the biscuits from the bowl to place in his pocket as his peers proceed to tattle to the teacher about his food hoarding.  

Tevon feeling embarrassed and ashamed stands up from his chair and throws all of the bowls, utensils and food off of the table, as well as his chair across the room while crying and screaming, “leave me alone’” at the top of his lungs. The teacher immediately tries to calm him down by assuring him that he is safe and rubbing his back. Once he is calm, Tevon shares with his teacher that he is hungry at home. He also shared that he witnessed his mom argue and physically fight the next door neighbor the day before and that he wants to live in another house because his house is loud and has too many bugs.

Furthermore, Tevon lives with his mom who works 2 jobs and has an elementary-aged sibling who cares for him after school. The teacher spoke with mom on the phone regarding Tevon’s behavior and conversation and mom confirmed his home experiences and is working 2 jobs to move out of the infested apartment. Mom also expressed concerned about his aggressive behavior at home.

Unfortunately, this is only one of many preschool teachers' stories in many communities across this country. Teachers facing the trauma of young children in the classroom without the appropriate training or skill set on how to best support children with challenging behaviors as it relates to trauma. Data shows that more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma in the form of abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances—and 35 percent of children have experienced more than one type of traumatic event, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These adverse childhood experiences can have impacts that extend far beyond childhood, including higher risks for alcoholism, liver disease, suicide, and other health problems later in life.

Traumatic experiences can actually change the structure and functioning of a child’s brain through the activation of stress response systems. When exposed to a stressor, the body responds through a “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” response that activates several systems in the body and releases stress hormones that are designed to be protective for survival.  However, this response becomes dangerous to the brain, rather than protective, when repeated traumatic experiences lead to an over-reactive stress system. As described by one pediatrician, these children are living in a “constant state of emergency,” and it has very real implications for their brain development and social functioning. 

For teachers, who are directly exposed to a large number of young people with trauma in their work, a secondary type of trauma, known as vicarious stress, is a big risk. Sometimes called the “cost of caring,” vicarious trauma can result from “hearing people’s trauma stories and becoming witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured,” according to the American Counseling Association. A significant number of children experience trauma, and the effects can be profound. It is imperative, therefore, that early childhood settings be safe, trauma-sensitive spaces where teachers support children in creating positive self-identities. (Cole et al.2013). To fully understand children’s challenging behaviors, it is imperative that teachers communicate with children’s families regularly to understand whether the behavior is seen in the classroom might be connected to traumatic experiences (Wright 2014).

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.“We know enough about the science to know that teachers can make a huge difference,” said Jennings. “The school environment is one of the places where students who are exposed to real challenges at home can find safety and stability.”

“The adults in the school environment may be the most stable and mentally well people [some children] have contact with,” said Jennings. “Their teachers can become role models for them for what a healthy adult is like. School can become a sanctuary for kids like this.”In Jennings’ work, she focuses first on helping teachers develop resilience, self-awareness, and self-regulation -- and then on how they can teach these tools to children.  She said that teachers need to learn how to manage their own stress that comes with navigating students’ trauma-related behavior.

The Momentous Institute in Dallas, Texas has been working to build and repair social-emotional health since 1920 and has invested in research and training with trauma-informed strategies that strengthen social-emotional health. The Momentous Model for social-emotional health begins with the foundation of safe relationships for children. As preschool teachers look into the innocent faces of 4-year-olds who have experienced trauma, teachers can become better prepared to deal with trauma in the preschool classroom with these informed practices:

  • Ensure children feel safe
  • Build trusting relationships with students
  • Create trauma-sensitive spaces
  • Ask the question - “What happened to this child?” 
  • Depersonalize the behavior
  • Identify your own ACE’s or trauma
  • Expose children to social skills - self-awareness, self-regulation, resilience, empathy
  • Develop opportunities that promote diversity of self-identity
  • Collaborate with resource staff that support families
  • Consistent communication and engagement with parent(s)
  • Practice self-reflection, coping strategies and self-care
  • Connecting with colleagues to talk through and process experiences

According to the Education Law Center, an estimated two in three children are exposed to traumatic experiences that have the potential to impact brain development, social functioning, and ability to learn and engage in school. Recognizing and addressing this issue must become a focus for our educational system. Trauma-informed approaches, which have been supported by research evidence in fields such as mental health and child welfare, recognize and address the implications of traumatic experiences for students. 

Trauma has the potential to affect all students and teachers, and implementing a trauma-informed approach as early as preschool has the potential to transform the educational landscape and positively impact communities.