Early Childhood Trauma Requires a Team Effort

Blog Post
July 13, 2017

Young children are disproportionately susceptible to traumatic life events. Victimization commonly occurs before a child’s first birthday and cases of child abuse and neglect, unintentional injuries such as drowning or burns, and domestic violence are more likely to occur among children under the age of six.

According to a report by Child Trends and the National Center for Children in Poverty, early childhood trauma takes place “when a young child experiences an event that causes actual harm or poses a serious threat to the child’s emotional and physical well-being.” Unlike the stressors that arise from typical life experiences, trauma causes feelings of intense fear, terror, and helplessness that can lead to long-lasting, devastating symptoms.

How a child recovers from a traumatic event is unpredictable. It depends on multiple factors, such as the child’s age, the nature of the event, and the presence of other risk (poverty, community violence) and protective (nurturing caregiver, social support) factors. What we do know is the impact trauma has on a child’s cognitive, language, and social-emotional development, mental health, and his or her ability to form and maintain relationships with others. Following a traumatic event, close to 39 percent of young children develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Young children respond differently to trauma than older children and adults because many have not yet developed the skills to verbalize their feelings of distress or fear. They externalize their traumatic experiences in ways that may not be easily identified as reactions to trauma, and often their aggression and withdrawal is misdiagnosed as other disorders such as ADHD. Typical approaches a teacher would use to address such behaviors (redirection, praise) may not work and can increase a child’s stress.

The impact of early childhood trauma goes beyond the individual and influences parents, families, and early childhood education (ECE) professionals. If the parents share the same traumatic experience, their own distress may interfere with their ability to take care of the child. This may intensify the child’s symptoms, disrupt daily routines, and force families to separate. In the classroom, teachers may be unprepared to cope with a child’s externalizing behaviors, and feel torn between attending to the child or focusing on the rest of the group. Having to meet the demands of children with emotional and behavioral needs can cause a teacher to feel mentally, emotionally, or physically exhausted and overwhelmed, leading to secondary traumatic stress.

Adults who interact with young children must learn how to identify trauma and respond appropriately and successfully. Supporting young children who have experienced trauma requires the help of parents, teachers, and mental health professionals. Trauma-informed care (TIC) is an approach that promotes recovery and resilience using evidence-based approaches. In TIC, all of the people in young children’s lives are equipped with knowledge and skills about trauma, and there is cross-sector collaboration to ensure that programs and policies are addressing these children’s unique needs.

TIC is relatively new, but there are promising approaches such as integrating trauma-informed strategies into existing ECE programs, connecting ECE and community organizations to facilitate screenings and distribute services to children and families, and emphasizing TIC in standards and trainings for infant and early childhood mental health consultants and the ECE workforce. The report mentions the statewide Early Childhood Consultation Partnership in Connecticut, a comprehensive mental health consultation program that works with pre-K teachers and child care providers who have students that are at risk of suspension or expulsion. Results show that it’s working.

The Child Trends report suggests policies and practices to ensure that children who have experienced trauma receive high-quality care and specialized supports. These recommendations apply to advocates of early childhood across many levels and sectors, from federal and state policymakers to child care center directors and mental health professionals.

Strengthen the ECE workforce by increasing their capacity to provide trauma-informed care (TIC). Professional development (PD) should draw from evidence-based programs to inform ECE professionals about trauma-informed skills and practices. These strategies should be included in state Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) plans and PD offered through state Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS). In addition, the Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (IECMHC) program has been shown to improve child behaviors and teachers’ sensitivity towards children. States should train mental health consultants on TIC practices.

Moreover, caring for children who have experienced trauma can take a toll on ECE professionals and impact teacher-child interactions and student outcomes. The National Research Council’s Transforming the Workforce report suggests including stress reduction strategies such as self-care and mindfulness in trainings to ensure that ECE professionals continue to cultivate positive learning environments.

Prioritize children who have experienced trauma for spots in high-quality ECE programs. Continuity of care and stability are beneficial for all children, but particularly for those who have experienced trauma. Policies should recognize the importance of a nurturing caregiver relationship for these children and prioritize pre-K slots for vulnerable children. New regulations for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), contracts that reserve slots in high-quality child care programs for vulnerable children, and initiatives such as Safe Babies Court Teams are all examples that promote the placement of young children who have experienced trauma into ECE programs.

Once in the classroom, these children are at higher risk of getting kicked out due to social-emotional and behavioral difficulties. Currently, the national rate of expulsion in state-funded pre-K is more than three times the rate of expulsion in K-12th grade. Policies to eliminate pre-K suspension and expulsion are critical, because the supports provided in ECE help prevent further harm. Policies should provide screening, assessment, and guidance to address developmental delays and promote school-readiness.

Build networks connecting ECE programs, community programs, and mental health services. Children who experience trauma may need additional services that are beyond the capacities of the ECE program. Exposure to trauma may indicate the presence of other risk factors such as parental mental illness, housing and food insecurity, community violence, and poverty. ECE programs should have knowledge of and partner with services to provide trauma screening, evidence-based treatment, and assistance for both children and families.

With support from community resources, ECE programs can connect and bring services to children and their families. Investing in strong support systems for young children who experience trauma can facilitate a path towards academic achievement, and more importantly, healthy life outcomes.

For additional information about helping children who have experienced trauma, check out this earlier post from New America’s Shayna Cook.