AFT’s “Helping Children Thrive” revealed that mental health is the top priority in children’s health for our union’s members and leaders. School-based members are emphatic about the challenges they face, especially with behavioral health. For example, a teacher and coach from St. Paul, Minn., writes, “Our students need more mental health supports. Additionally, our curriculum does not allow for social/emotional skills to be taught and developed.” Many members also report being uncertain of their ability to address the behaviors that stem from emotional disturbance and mental illness.1 Understanding the role of trauma in children’s brain development is essential to establishing effective behavioral interventions in schools.

Childhood trauma is linked to short- and long-term health issues

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coined the term “adverse childhood experiences” to describe situations such as physical, sexual and emotional abuse; physical and emotional neglect; and household dysfunction. 2

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study seeks to identify how trauma can influence the risk factors for severe health issues and child development. The study found that as the number of ACEs increases, so does a child’s likelihood for experiencing negative outcomes:

  • Children who experience head trauma as a result of physical violence are more likely to have cognitive impairment.
  • Up to 80 percent of abused children exhibit a psychiatric disorder by age 21; chronic stress may make victims more vulnerable to conduct disorder as well as difficulties with learning, attention and memory.
  • Dropping out of high school, delinquency, teen pregnancy and low academic achievement are all more likely among children who have faced trauma.

In addition to these risky behaviors, exposure to traumatic stressors can disrupt early brain development, and chronic stress can harm the development of the nervous and immune systems. Fortunately, scientific data prove that with intervention, damage caused from toxic stress can be healed.

Building positive and safe school climates can redress the harm of adverse childhood experiences

The first step in creating a positive and safe school climate is to realize the severity of trauma and its impact on children. Children who experience trauma often feel fearful, unstable and neglected; therefore, promoting and advocating for school climates and environments that are aimed at restoring safety, security and a sense of nurturing can help improve a child’s path moving forward. Futures Without Violence suggests using small gestures as a way to help heal children who are experiencing trauma. These five small gestures are:

  • Celebrate: Use encouraging words.
  • Inspire: Expose children to new and bright ideas.
  • Listen: Show interest by being present and available.
  • Collaborate: Work with children to solve their problems.
  • Comfort: Stay calm, patient and nonjudgmental.

These gestures have been shown to improve children’s growth within and outside their school community by improving a child’s self-worth, improving focus and academic performance, building a stronger foundation for neurological growth, improving the likelihood of graduating from high school and going to college, and improving health outcomes.3

Beyond individual interactions, the Essentials for Childhood framework offers four recommendations/ strategies designed to help promote safe, secure and nurturing environments while preventing adverse childhood experiences:

  • Raise awareness and commitment. School personnel must change their attitudes and behavior as well as be willing to commit not only to raising awareness, but also to finding a solution.
  • Use data to inform solutions. Using data helps schools to understand the size and nature of the problem, how to best direct prevention resources and how to monitor the impact of any interventions.
  • Support parents and caregivers. A child’s initial exposure to the world surrounding them is provided by parents and caregivers. Therefore, strengthening a family’s relationship with the child will play a significant role in cognitive, emotional, physical and social development.
  • Support and advocate for good policies. Having policies in place that support healthy children and families can ensure children are living in safe and secure environments.4

Trauma-informed practices can help wounded children thrive

The prevention strategies designed to reduce childhood trauma do not involve simple processes. So Futures Without Violence suggests starting small and scaling up efforts. It may also be helpful to consider existing prevention strategies. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration includes a list of some well-known trauma interventions that are being used extensively; including:

  • Trauma, Addiction, Mental Health and Recovery (TAMAR)
  • Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy (TARGET)
  • Trauma Recovery and Empowerment Model (TREM and M-TREM)5

In addition to the extensive use of these strategies, they also have produced great outcomes. Schools in  Brooklyn, N.Y.New Haven, Conn., San Francisco, and others cities all have adopted trauma-informed practices and see reduced suspensions and referrals, as well as improved student behavior, engagement and school climate as results.


1 AFT. (2015). “Helping Children Thrive.”

2 Major Findings. (2014, May 13). Retrieved Dec. 21, 2015, from

3 Futures Without Violence. (Soon to come). The Impact of Childhood Trauma Campaign.

4 Preventing Child Maltreatment Through the Promotion of Safe, Stable, and Nurturing Relationships Between Children and Caregivers. (2008). PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e587052010-001

5 Trauma-Informed Approach and Trauma-Specific Interventions. (n.d.). Retrieved Dec. 21, 2015, from