Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes individual trauma as resulting from "an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being."

Prolonged stress or trauma has a huge impact on children and young people.

Even after the stressful or traumatic situation has passed, children’s brains and bodies can continue to react as if the stress is continuing. The effects of trauma can be so encompassing that it can impact all aspect of children’s development. Trauma can prevent children from maturing emotionally, psychologically, and cognitively. The children can remain constantly in survival mode.

Consequently, traumatized and stressed children and young people have little space left for learning when their immediate sense of safety is not restored in the school setting. The effects of trauma can impact their ability to concentrate, pay attention, retain and recall new information. As a result of mistrust, fear and disrupted emotional regulation their behaviour can be challenging in the school environment. At other times, children and youth can appear withdrawn or emotionally absent.

Experiencing secure adult relationships that are characterized by calm empathetic responses is the key to healing for children and youth exposed to trauma.

Even when young people are acting in unexpected and confusing ways, adult responses that attune to the emotional state of the young person can “retrain” the part of the brain that may be anticipating harmful outcomes.  Adults within a school setting may also have a personal trauma history and could be at varying stages of healing which can impact upon the student – adult relationship. 

The trauma-informed approach creates a place of safety and mutual respect for students. In a learning environment, a trauma-informed approach means creating a school culture that

  • understands trauma
  • recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma
  • realizes the widespread impact of trauma
  • actively makes space for learning
  • creates safe physical and psychological spaces for everyone
  • builds and maintains trust through collaboration, peer support, and mutual self-help
  • recognizes, builds on, and validates individual strengths
  • encourages empowerment, voice, and choice
  • connects a student’s social, cultural, family, or language background to what the student is learning; nurtures that cultural uniqueness; and responds by creating conditions in which the student’s learning is enhanced

With support, children and young people can, and do, recover from the harmful effects of trauma.

To do so, however, they need adults in their lives to be understanding of and responsive to their unique needs. They cannot easily adapt and change to their environment. Their environment and the people in it must adjust to help them. These children and young people need the space to learn to be created for them by those who care for and support them. (Making SPACE for Learning, p. 3)