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Childhood Trauma and the Elementary School-Age Child

We all experience negative events in our lives and quite often these events can be considered traumatic — the sudden passing of a loved one, a serious automobile crash, a life-threatening illness, or perhaps a violent crime. We do what we can to cope, by drawing on our own inner strength, the help of friends and family, and other sources of support or inspiration to recover and restore a sense of well-being.

When an elementary school-aged child experiences trauma, however, finding the way forward is harder. Young children are in the midst of developing the cognitive, reasoning, and socialization skills necessary to comprehend and respond to trauma, whether it’s an isolated event like a bullying situation or an accident, or an ongoing situation such as child abuse, a natural disaster, or community violence. Even seeing such events on TV can cause emotional distress in very young children.

These kinds of traumatic events can have a detrimental effect on a child’s social and mental development. Children who repeatedly experience trauma also may have greater difficulty concentrating, which can make solving problems even more difficult.

When combined with the stress of the other developmental challenges that typically occur during elementary school, such as making new friends and adjusting to new environments, trauma can take a toll on a child’s academic performance, self-esteem, and social skills.

Teachers and other professionals who work with children may be surprised to learn that as many as two out of three children have been exposed to at least one traumatic event before the age of 16, and that these events can profoundly affect learning and behavior. Identifying a child who has been traumatized can be difficult, however, because very young children may be unwilling or unable to talk about what has happened to them or how they are feeling.

Moreover, because some of the child’s responses to trauma — such as experiencing anxiety, being excessively clingy, becoming withdrawn or unable to control emotions, have headaches and stomach-aches — mirror symptoms of other issues, teachers may not immediately recognize the true source of the distress.

That’s why teachers, counselors, family members, and other adults need to familiarize themselves with childhood trauma and what they can do to help. Support from adults is particularly important because elementary school-aged children look to them for both structure and guidance during difficult times

[Furthermore, a program involving teachers, parents, and other caregivers has proven highly successful in helping elementary school-aged children deal with trauma. In [COMMUNITY NAME], for example,...]

A wide range of informational resources are available from [INSERT LOCAL COMMUNITY AGENCY PHONE #/EMAIL ADDRESS] and from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (www.samhsa.gov/children) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Along with providing tips and strategies for helping children dealing with trauma, these resources will also help adults understand the impact of trauma and answer questions about other responsibilities, such as those related to mandated reporting laws and procedures for dealing with suspected physical/sexual abuse and other serious issues.

Teachers or other adults who help a young child deal with trauma are doing more than just helping him or her through a difficult situation. They are helping the child to learn important coping skills and build resilience that will restore a sense of well-being today, and provide a foundation for dealing with other difficult experiences later in life.


If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs to talk, please call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

Return to main page of SAMHSA.gov/Children | For more information, click here to email AwarenessDay2014@vancomm.com