Are you a teacher looking for research-based information on trauma informed teaching for special education students? You are in the right place.

What is Trauma?

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network via “Trauma Informed Schools: What Are They,” the following list contains Traumatic Situations for students:

  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Abandonment
  • Neglect
  • The death or loss of a loved one
  • Life-threatening violence in a caregiver
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Automobile accidents or other serious accidents
  • Bullying
  • Life-threatening health situations and/or painful medical procedures
  • Witnessing or experiencing violence (e.g., shootings, stabbings, robbery, or fighting at home, in the neighborhood or at school)
  • Witnessing police activity or having a close relative incarcerated
  • Life-threatening natural disasters
  • Acts or threats of terrorism (viewed in person or on television)
  • Living in chronically chaotic environments that are unstable.

This list is not exhaustive as trauma can be any event or situation that inhibits a student’s ability to learn normally. Some of our students have small amounts of trauma that might fit on a spoon. Others might have a whole truckload of trauma to contend with and heal from. Some of our students have trauma solely in their past, while other students have trauma that is ongoing in their lives.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress, up to 40% of students have experienced or witnessed traumatic stress. The National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence has the number at 60% of children experiencing trauma. Examples of trauma include home destabilization, violence, neglect, sexual abuse, substance abuse, death, parental incarceration, and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). As our climate changes, natural disasters are growing on this list. I volunteered in college reading to children who evacuated from Hurricane Katrina, and I’ve seen my city Houston flood multiple times over the last several years. The stress impacts children especially. If you’ve taught more than two students, you are likely to have taught a student who has experienced trauma.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, were named by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente (Education Week, 2019). IDEA even refers to trauma for pre-schoolers and allows children who have experienced a, “substantial case of trauma due to family violence,” to be eligible for early intervention services, an important fact for those on the IEP team. Each ACE a student has increases absenteeism, behavior problems, and academic performance (Education Week, 2019). ACEs don’t only impact a student in school; ACEs have a life-long impact on a person’s health. Understanding ACEs helps us as special education teachers ensure services are provided when legally required and helps us make informed decisions about how to help students academically, behaviorally, and socially.

ace_pyramid_lrgImage via https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/ace-graphics.html

ACEs Assessment

While the definition of ACEs varies and there does not seem to be one standardized list of ACEs, there are resources to help you assess and consider ACEs. The World Health Organization has an assessment called ACE-IQ. It is only designed for those 18 and older. However, I think it is a good resource to review for our understanding of the ACEs without administering it to children. This assessment is designed to be applicable for use world-wide. This is helpful for educators because some of our students may come with trauma not often seen in our area. The assessment helps us think of ACEs that may be less common in the United States but still impact some students, like being a refugee of a war.

Environment and Trauma: The Ecosystem

Every person, including all our students, exists within five distinct ecosystem levels: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem. The microsystem involves a person’s interactions with their immediate environment at home and school. If we zoom out to the next level of the mesosystem, we see the relationships between different microsystems, for example, the interaction between home and school. The exosystem impacts students via school policies, dress codes, and teacher training. If we zoom all the way out to macrofactors we see things like oppression, discrimination, and public policy legislation that impact our kids. The chronosystem is about development with age and how age interacts with the rest of the layers (Crosby). Keep in mind for our kids in special education, they may be at a different developmental level than peers their age which will impact their trauma and could manifest in a way more like their developmental level rather than chronological age.

Impact of Trauma

According to Brunzell, Waters, and Stokes, the impacts of traumatic events are showing up in students as ADHD, conduct disorder, and oppositional defiance disorder. Trauma can also cause intermittent explosive disorder. Even for students who don’t receive special education eligibility, trauma can impacts the way we need to teach our students.

According to Buxton, there is little research about the behavioral responses of emotionally disturbed (ED) children in a trauma informed context. As special education teachers, we know how damaging that lack of research can be. We are legally expected to use evidence-based practices with our students, but sometimes there is a lack of research to use. In the meantime, teachers all over the country are reporting an increase of violent and/or disruptive behavior.

Trauma can cause cognitive delays. It harms a child’s ability to concentrate, self-regulate, and use memory (Buxton). According to Buxton’s study, there is overlap between the behaviors reported in IEPs and in three of the four functional domains related to trauma. Those domains are academics, relationships, and self-regulation. If you have worked with students with an ED eligibility, you might be nodding your head in agreement because it aligns closely with what you have observed in your career. While I have not seen this in research, it would not surprise me if special education students are more likely than others to have experienced trauma. Whether my suspicion is right or not, it’s critical for special education teachers to be trauma informed so they can understand it as a possible cause of behavior. By approaching students with an understanding of trauma, we can work to help in a non-threatening way that respects their experiences and how those experiences have altered their brain.

How to Be Trauma Sensitive

According to Pawlo, Lorenzo, Eichert, and Elias, programs that teach Social Emotional Learning should all be trauma-informed. The goals are often similar, but the intensities differ. They recommend a few useful things to do school wide, but if you can’t make a school wide change, you can at least make changes in your classroom.

Highly Predictable Routines

Highly predictable routines help students feel safer and become less fearful. Students with trauma often have come to expect instability. Helping give them stability in your class will help calm the waves they are riding in life. Routines are the bedrock of solid classroom management, and are also considered to benefit students with autism in particular.

Focus on Strengths

Helping students have a positive purpose and highlighting student strengths helps create a positive environment for students who have experienced trauma. Students who have experienced trauma are more likely to have experienced rejection and have a poor self-concept.  Instead of focusing on a student’s deficits, how can you focus on their strengths? We should always be considering our students strengths and how to build those. While, yes, we are charged with closing gaps and deficits, our special education students (and really every student) would be well served by a focus on strengths so they can find careers in which they thrive. This means our schools need to have arts, music, theater, and sports programs. Sometimes, those courses and activities are what keeps kids coming to school when they are not feeling successful academically.

School Climate for Teachers

While teachers have less control over this than administration and district personnel, Social Emotional Learning programs must focus on helping adults in the building, not just students. As teachers, we are often told of the magic of building relationships. But that is extremely hard to do when we ourselves are fearful or stressed out. Taking care of teachers helps teachers take care of the kids. If you aren’t finding support in your building, find other special education teachers to help encourage you. Our Facebook page is here to help you find other teachers facing similar challenges.

Free Training

If you are looking for more information on ACEs, The Center of Disease Control recommends these free courses as a resource at Veto Violence.


If this article helped you understand more about trauma informed teaching, please share it with your teacher colleagues on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or however you like to communicate with your fellow educators. Together, we can make a difference for students.

Teachers are better together


Buxton, P. S. (2018). Viewing the Behavioral Responses of ED Children from a Trauma-Informed Perspective. Educational Research Quarterly41(4), 30–49. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=129643261&site=ehost-live

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Connecting the dots. Retrieved from  https://vetoviolence.cdc.gov/apps/connecting-the-dots/

Crosby, S. D. (2015). An Ecological Perspective on Emerging Trauma-Informed Teaching Practices. Children & Schools37(4), 223–230. https://doi.org/10.1093/cs/cdv027

Pawlo, E., Lorenzo, A., Eichert, B., & Elias, M. J. (2019). All Sel Should Be Trauma-Informed. Phi Delta Kappan101(3), 37–41. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=139382511&site=ehost-live

Some FAQs for Educators On Children’s Trauma. (2019). Education Week39(1), 20. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=138219549&site=ehost-live

Trauma-informed Schools: What Are They? (2017). Curriculum Review57(4), 10. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=126425345&site=ehost-live

World Health Organization (2018). Adverse childhood experiences international questionaire (ACE-IQ). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/activities/adverse_childhood_experiences/en/

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