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.
There is some hopeful news in the sobering research about kids and trauma. “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.”
When infants and very young children experience chronic stress, it affects their sense of security, and this has a ripple effect on future relationships. As Jennings explained, “When we are infants, we are attached to our caregivers – our survival depends on them. Whatever attachment patterns we have with our caregivers, we project onto others. It’s our template.” If the parent-child relationship is inconsistent, unhealthy or interrupted, “it’s hard for kids to know if they can trust other adults.” A caring teacher can create a new template about adults, said Jennings, one that says, “Teachers are caring, kind people who want to help me.”
In this way, teachers are uniquely positioned to ameliorate some of the effects of early trauma. “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.”
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