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10.6: The relationship between trauma and behavior

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    • Ardene Niemer & Sharon Romppanen

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    Many of our children have experienced trauma, and we may or may not be aware. For them, keeping themselves safe becomes the primary motivator of behavior. Children may appear manipulative or controlling when they may be attempting to just keep themselves safe. Safety is the most important goal of a child experiencing trauma (

    Like the tree and root system we learned earlier in this chapter, we only see the small portion above the surface. Look below the surface of the behavior, and you will see the feelings and emotions driving the behavior. The unwanted or “misbehavior” we experience is often a child’s attempt to solve another problem of which we are unaware.

    Even minor stressors can act as triggers that fill children with emotion and can result in misbehavior. When teachers and caregivers do not understand why a child is acting out, they are more likely to focus on “managing” the behavior rather than meeting the child’s need. This is not an effective response to misbehavior and is very much like a doctor treating the symptoms of a disease without considering the cure. (

    To understand unwanted or “misbehavior”, it is important to understand the body’s stress response. The NCTSN shares that our bodies have a built-in alarm system that signals danger? Children who have experienced repeated trauma often have overactive alarms. They are powerfully attentive for danger and may label non-threatening things as dangerous. False alarms can happen when children hear, see, smell, or feel something that reminds them of frightening things from the past. These reminders are called triggers.

    Some Common Triggers of Behavior include:

    • Changes in the schedule, routine or environment that are unexpected
    • The sense a child feels of helplessness or fear
    • Experiencing a situation that causes a child to feel threatened or attacked
    • Overstimulation from the environment (can be many things including too many children/people in the room, noise, light, or activity).

    What Does a Triggered Child Look Like?

    The National Child Traumatic Stress Network shares that behaviors resulting from a stress response typically fall into one of three categories: flight, fight, or freeze. Flight looks like behaviors in which children move away from a person/situation they feel is a threat Fight looks like behaviors in which children move toward a person/situation they feel is a threat Freeze looks like behaviors in which children use their minds to move away from a person/situation they feel is a threat (holding still while “checking out”).


    • When the child is calm, talk about how to recognize triggers and what can be done to increase awareness of emotions to prevent being triggered, or what can be done to calm down and manage (or regulate) emotions.
    • As difficult as it can be, try to remember that these behaviors are not a personal attack, and likely have little to do with you.

    Children who have experienced trauma may appear nervous or jumpy. They may avoid physical contact. They may have difficulty sleeping/have nightmares. Children who have experienced trauma may be confused about what is dangerous and who to go to for protection, especially if the trauma was caused by a caregiver. They may have mood swings, for example, shifting quickly between being quiet and withdrawn to being aggressive. Additionally, they may demand lots of attention, have trouble paying attention to teachers at school and to parents at home, lose their appetite, go back to “younger” behaviors such as baby talk or wanting adults to feed or dress them. They may also re-enact the scary things they have experienced during play, withdraw from friends or activities they have enjoyed previously, and/or get into fights at school or fight with siblings at home.

    What Can You Do?
    • You, the adult must stay calm, regardless of the behaviors are demonstrated. An upset adult interacting with a triggered child can worsen the behavior.
    • Remember the tree and root system…try to identify the need below the surface that is influencing the child’s behavior. Shift your focus on meeting the child’s need rather than on correcting the behavior.
    • You might try the strategy of “belly breathing” or blowing bubbles to help the child breathe and calm.
    • Wait until the child is no longer triggered to talk about what happened. While triggered, a child is not able to use the rational part of the brain, making reasoning ineffective.

    We tend to think of trauma as the result of a single frightening and upsetting event, therefore we rarely consider unwanted behavior to be the result of trauma. Many children experience trauma through ongoing exposure, throughout their early development, to abuse, neglect, homelessness, domestic violence, or violence in their communities. And research has shown that chronic trauma can cause serious problems with learning and behavior (Miller).

    Trauma is particularly challenging for educators to address because kids often do not express the distress they are feeling in a way that is easily recognizable — and they may hide their pain with behavior that is aggressive or off-putting. As Nancy Rappaport, MD, a child, and adolescent psychiatrist who focuses on mental health issues in schools, shares, “They are masters at making sure you do not see them bleed.”

    As educators we need to learn the symptoms of trauma in children to understand these confusing behaviors. Identification of symptoms of trauma can also help avoid misdiagnosis, as these symptoms can mimic other learning challenges, including ADHD and other behavior disorders (Rappaport).

    Some of the barriers to learning that are experienced by children impacted by trauma include trouble forming relationships with teachers and other adults, poor self-regulation skills, negative thinking, hypervigilance, and challenges with executive function (

    Children who have been neglected or abused often have problems forming relationships with teachers, a necessary first step in a successful classroom experience. They have learned to be wary of adults, even those who appear to be reliable, since they have been ignored or betrayed by those they have depended on. Often, these children do not have the experience that would support them to ask for help. There has been little or no adult modeling for recognizing and meeting their needs.

    Many children who have experienced trauma have not been able to develop secure attachments to the adults in their lives. Children who have never developed that early attachment for trust and who have not learned that they are lovable, and that people will take care of them, need extra support to build those special relationships with their teachers and other staff (

    The Child Mind Institute also shares that one of the challenges in giving that support is that when kids act out, our programs and schools often use disciplinary systems that involve withdrawing attention and support, rather than addressing their problems. We need to do the opposite and show extra patience for kids who provoke and push away adults who try to help them. Instead of punishing, this is our opportunity to teach a child what to do! We need to work with them on changing their behavior. When a child is acting up in class, we as teachers need to recognize the powerful feelings they are expressing, even though they are expressed inappropriately.

    Rather than jumping to reprimands, a behavior plan, deducting points or withdrawing privileges or suspending the child, it is critical to acknowledge the child’s emotion and trying to identify it. This is also where modeling plays a big role. By saying “I can see that you are really angry that Anja took the marker you wanted!”. If that statement is not correctly connected to the feelings the child is experience, that child s/he is highly likely to correct you.

    Materials and strategies for labeling feelings and emotions should be an ongoing part of the curriculum and be present in a “quiet corner” and in accessible parts of the classroom environment. Acknowledging and naming an emotion helps children be more able to express themselves in a more appropriate way. Communicating that understand the child is the essential first step to helping a child learn to express himself in ways that do not separate them and/or push away and people who can help him.

    It is critical that we remember and respect that children who have experienced trauma (or are experiencing ongoing trauma) often have trouble managing strong emotions. As babies and toddlers, children learn to calm and soothe themselves by being calmed and soothed by the adults in their lives. If they haven’t had that experience, because of neglect, the lack of a secure attachment system contributes to their chronic dysregulation (emotional dysregulation is when a child is unable to control or regulate their emotional responses to challenging input.) (

    In the classroom, teachers need to support and coach children in ways to calm themselves and manage their emotions. This allows the adults to act as models and to be partners in helping children to learn skills for managing their behavior. Remember that co-regulation (warm and responsive interactions that a child needs to understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) comes before self-regulation. We need to help them learn how to get the control they need to change the output when they are upset. This also includes providing coaching and practice at de-escalating when they feel overwhelmed. (

    Another challenge to children with trauma is that they develop the belief that they are bad, and what has happened to them is their fault. This leads to the expectation that people are not going to like them or treat them well. They may think “I’m a bad kid. Why would I do well in school? Bad kids don’t do well in school.”

    Children with trauma may also tend to develop the idea that everyone is out to get them. They might hear directions and requests as exaggerated and angry and unfair. This leads the child to act out with quick response quickly and in an irritable manner. A mistake that might seem trivial to us becomes exaggerated if their experience has been that minor mistakes result in adult anger or punishment. For these children, it is important to build on small steps towards success in the classroom, and to help them see that in the classroom making a mistake is a necessary part of learning.

    One of the classic symptoms of trauma is hyper-vigilance, which means being overly alert to danger. In the case of trauma, physiological hyper-arousal means that children are jumpy, they have an exaggerated startle response. They can have some big, out-of-control seeming behaviors, because their fight or flight response has gone off. Be mindful that this can look like hyperactivity, and lead to misdiagnosis for ADHD. Being chronically agitated can also lead to difficulty with sleeping and chronic irritability. (Miller).

    For positive behaviors to grow and thrive in the classroom It is important that teachers learn strategies to support children to calm themselves when something in the classroom triggers an emotional outburst. When a child is escalating, the key is to match their affect, but in a controlled way. The goal is to connect to their big feeling. If you can connect with what they are trying to tell you, they may be able to regain their calm. It can work even if you just make a guess — you do not have to be right; they can correct you. (Garey, 2013).


    Highlight the topics presented in this chapter where information overlapped.

    List strategies that you will implement in your curriculum to support positive behavior, social and emotional skills growth.

    Record the changes can you make to your environment to support social and emotional skill development related to behavior.

    Communication with families- sharing and reflecting mutual perspectives

    Image 10.8 Young girl covering her face with her hands is licensed under CC by 1.0

    At this point in the chapter, we have built a shared definition of behavior, taken a deeper look at behavior and motivation, and established an understanding that all behavior is a form of communication. We have also reviewed how relationships (especially positive relationships) relate to behavior and are needed to support positively guiding the behavior of children. This foundation was built to support a mutual understanding of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma. This critical piece of information is necessary to understand the whole child and not simply react to the behavior(s) that are seen. We are closing Chapter 10 with information about how to have conversations with families about behaviors (challenging and/or unwanted). This communication requires an ability for you to be objective, positive, and culturally aware in the information you share and the method by which you communicate.

    Successful work in the field of Early Learning depends on your ability to build positive, trusting, and respectful relationships with families. No child comes to us alone or isolated, they come to us within the context of a family. When we build and maintain trusting relationships with those families, we will be able to engage in more opportunities for open communication and dialogue about children.

    We know from experience that having a conversation about a child’s challenging behavior can be stressful for them and for ourselves. Did you know that you can reduce your stress and gain more positive results when you “invest” in relationships with families? You will need to be objective and stick to facts, while at the same time maintain a focus on solutions. It is important that we understand that in child development, there are cultural differences relating to beliefs about developmental milestones. When communicating with families it is important to be conscious of your own beliefs related to culture and your personal biases as you make choices about what and how to communicate with families.

    You might even feel intimidated in having conversations with families about a child’s behavior. A key strategy in having difficult conversations is to begin with the positive. We start with strengths, including describing what the child can do, and what he/she does well. Include positives about behavior and times when have you notices positive behaviors or interactions. We must always avoid the impulse to blame the family for the child’s challenging behavior. This is an important interaction to have with the family and cannot be avoided out of our fear of potential (real or imagined) conflict. When we look at these extremes of blame and avoidance, we should realize that neither approach is helpful for the child, and both only add to your own stress. This added stress could even possibly increase the intensity of the behavioral situation of concern.

    When the time comes to talk with a child’s family about challenging behavior Dr. Webster-Stratton (2012) shares some strategies to help create a productive interaction. Remember above where “invest” in relationships was mentioned? Dr. Webster-Stratton talks about this process of relationship building as a metaphor for a “piggy bank”. She believes that we need to make deposits regularly to this piggy bank, to have the ability to make withdrawals that support our difficult conversations. Try these three things in your relationship work with families:

    • Make sure you have plenty of investments in the “relationship bank” with the family,
    • Stick to data from your observations
    • Offer possible solutions and support.
    Image 10.9 Piggy Bank is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Dr. Webster-Stratton also discusses how to fill your relationship bank. Each of us (both children and adults) has an emotional “piggy bank”. It is built with positive relationships. Just like your real-life piggy bank, you must have money in the bank to successfully make withdrawals without a negative outcome.

    We know from research (Incredible Years, 2012) that children need 5 positives such as:

    • I see you using walking feet!
    • High-5! You’ve got this!
    • You are working SO hard!

    Those 5 positives are needed for “balance”, and to move forward in your positive relationship, for every negative such as:

    • No! or Stop!
    • Use of a child’s name to call them out
    • Please do not do that!

    Stop and think about that for a minute to let that ratio sink in; you need to say to a child 5 positives for every negative:

    1. Five (5) positives
    2. Provide balance for 1 negative
    3. Resulting in a more positive relationship and allowing the child opportunities for success.

    Stop and practice this “formula” related to a specific behavior you have observed or can imagine.

    Time to do some math! Think about that child whose name you say 350 times a day. Imagine that child’s name and multiply that 350 x 5. Did you calculate that answer to be 1750 positives? The child will need over 1700 positive comments just to break even emotionally! This deposit strategy is not only for the child, but also the same for families. That very first time you approach a family to discuss a child’s challenging or “unwanted” behavior you are withdrawing a significant amount from the emotional piggy bank. Do you have “enough” positive interactions and a strong relationship already in place to avoid a negative balance? With sufficient balance in the piggy bank, you are ready to have challenging conversations and, as Dr. Webster-Stratton (2012) found, families will still have emotional “money-in-the-bank” to work with you on developing possible solutions.

    The next point bulleted above was to stick to the facts. This is called being objective. We need to put aside the emotional aspect of challenging behaviors when you are communicating with the family. Taking this emotion-free, positive approach you could share with a family, “Today Michael had a very difficult time with sharing”. This Is a much more useful statement that opens the possibility for a conversation about problem-solving. The opposite can be said for using statements such as “Michael was hitting ALL day”. This statement is not helpful and is not helpful (it is also most likely not accurate). The positive approach will lead to the strategy to support Brandon learning a new skill, which he is. This also provides scaffolding to ask about behavior in the home, “Tell me about how Michael shares at home with his siblings. What methods have you tried that I might try here at school?” Remember that emotional piggy bank that was shared earlier? Our goal here is to build a positive relationship and partnership with the family. We want to work together to make positive connections between home-school. When we approach challenging behaviors in a fact-based manner, it will help to remove emotion and blame from the conversation and will be much more likely to help open doors rather than create walls (Webster-Stratton, 2012).

    The last bullet is about problem solving. For every conversation, we as the ECE professionals need to be ready to share some solutions. At the same time, it is of benefit to the partnership to engage in give and take by asking for and offering ongoing partnership with the family. Always get ideas and input from the family. You will have an opportunity to share other strategies with the family after they communicate what they are currently doing at home to support their child. This partner-based communication will work to build a bridge between home and school that will support of the child’s learning. You will also need to talk about going forward, and how you will continue to communicate about the child’s skill building. This should include any information you will be collecting from your ongoing classroom observations. Remember the importance of sharing successes in all written and verbal conversations with the family to keep adding to the family’s and child’s emotional piggy bank.

    Here are some guiding thoughts for your conversation with the family:

    1. Begin with strengths: “let’s talk about what Sarah is doing really well!” This will begin your conversation with the positive and will focus on what the child can do so that you can build from there.
    2. Share your concern using facts: “I am concerned about Sarah and how she’s doing with her frustration. Are you seeing similar challenges at home?” Remember that you are working to build that positive relationship with the family, and you should always bring up concerns with collaboration in your mind.
    3. Together, define a clear and measurable goal. “I really want to work with you to help Sarah develop her social skills to support positive behavior”.
    4. Create a plan together. “What do you think we should include in the plan for Sarah, so that each of us has strategies to follow that develop new skills for success”. Always focus on skill development, not on behavior. Use the image below as a check list for your plan. See appendix 10.1 for a template for reflection and action plan creation.


    1. Finally, discuss next steps for moving forward. “The more we all work together, the more successful Sarah will be”. Remember that consistency between home and school will support the child to be more successful, and faster.
    Image 10.10 Two young children holding hands and smiling is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Final Thoughts

    Chapter 10 looked at child behavior. The information was shared with the intent of building the foundation for positive and intentional guidance within a developmentally appropriate framework. The information was presented in a strengths-based approach, to support your work to build on what a child knows and can do to build skills.

    In defining behavior, we looked from two different perspectives: behavior that is seen and observed, and behavior that is “below the surface” and unseen. It is important to know every child with whom you work to be able to discover the “below the surface” experiences, skills and motivations that influence behavior. Along with the development and teaching of social and emotional skills, we must remember that all behavior is communication. Stop and ask yourself what a child is telling you through behavior next time you are challenged. The other question we must ask is about the well-being of the whole child and the possible presence of trauma in their life.

    At the core of our work around behavior needs to be relationship building with the child’s family. Strong, respectful relationships that are founded in partnership will support your work with the children and model social skills for life.

    As young children develop socially and emotionally, they learn self-control. At this time challenging behavior is common and can be expected. It is important to identify the meaning behind challenging behaviors and work together with families to set age-appropriate expectations for the child.

    “Every child deserves a champion- an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”

    Rita F. Pierson; Keystone Creations

    This page titled 10.6: The relationship between trauma and behavior is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Ardene Niemer & Sharon Romppanen.

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