Overcoming Childhood Trauma and School Success by Amanda H Davis, M.Ed

kids learning

When a child experiences a crisis of parenting that leads to him or her being removed from the home, complex trauma has occurred. Complex trauma occurs through repeated and prolonged exposure to trauma-inducing situations, most of which take place in a care-giving situation. This type of trauma has adverse effects on school success, even when there aren’t a lot of outward signs that the child is traumatized.

Among the possible negative effects are, delays in all areas of development; higher drop-out rates; lower academic achievement; higher suspension rates; higher rates of referral for special education and emotional symptoms of trauma can negatively impact concentration and memory.

Like a needle on a record player, complex trauma wears a groove in the brain. So when something non-threatening happens that reminds us of a traumatic incident, our bodies replay the traumatic reaction—mobilizing us to either run from or fight the threat, while shutting down other systems that help us think and reason. If this happens over and over, we become more easily triggered into a fear response mode, never giving our bodies time to recover.

For a child in a classroom, something as simple as the teacher raising their voice or accidentally getting bumped by another classmate can steer that child into this groove. As a caregiver, you have already taken the first and most important step in helping a child overcome trauma—you have removed the child from the toxic environment and provided love and safety.

Researchers have found that there are three main factors that can help the healing set by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) Complex Trauma Task Force. It is called the ARC Model:

1.building secure Attachments between child and caregivers(s);

2. enhancing self-Regulatory capacities; and

3. increasing Competencies across multiple domains.

Here are just a few practical ways caregivers can support school success and healing from trauma using this model. For more tips, visit our The Bridge page:


Attachment - Be sensitive; create clear and concrete safety plans with the child; allow children to tell the story of the trauma they experienced; maintain usual routines; promote family activities; remind them repeatedly that they are cared for and be sensitive to even minor transitions which can trigger feelings of trauma.

Regulatory (self-control and positive choices) - Help expand their “feeling” words so they can easily express themselves; give them choices to regain a sense of control and anticipate challenging situations and provide additional support.

Competency (building skills) - Engage them in activities that stimulate the mind and body; praise the child publicly and discipline privately; keep high expectations but provide many resources to achieve; constantly encourage and support - this creates confidence and greater success; be patient and manage expectations - don’t demand perfection.

Carrie Dawson