Recognizing Trauma in Today’s Youth
Increasingly, school aged children are faced with traumatic events and situations that make them vulnerable to risk factors associated with mental health illnesses, chronic absenteeism, and low academic achievement, which can impact their overall quality of life. Furthermore, students with special needs are likely to experience traumatic events at a higher rate than their non-disabled peers possibly due to cognitive, social/behavioral, and/or communication challenges.
It is important that parents and teachers collaborate and develop a plan to recognize triggers and cues associated with signs of distress with the special needs population.
Children with special needs rely heavily on past experiences associated with trauma and are influenced greatly by the emotional reactions seen in their adult caregivers. Although each child is unique, those who know the child best can often predict the behavior or reaction likely to happen based on their observations of the child’s response to past stress related situations.
Having an understanding and awareness to these triggers and cues can offer great insight into planning a crisis support plan that outlines specific effective interventions to minimizing the stress related impact. Common signs of distress reliant upon age and emotional development may include:
- Becoming withdrawn, quiet or isolating from peers
- Changes in speech patterns
- Psychosomatic complaints (stomachaches, headaches, minor complaints of bumps and bruises)
- Physical symptoms relating to tics, tremors, excessive sweating
- Increasingly irritable or distractible
- Task avoidance to preferred activities
- Verbal or physical aggression
- Outbursts or temper tantrums to changes in routines
- An overreaction to common occurrences
- Appearing lethargic or fatigued, lack of energy
- Disruption in sleep and eating patterns
- Regressive behavior (thumb sucking, enuresis, nightmares, clingy
- Exhibiting overly anxious or worrisome tendencies
- Difficulty concentrating or learning or problem solving
Strategies to Heal
Sensory or physical limitations: Students with vision, hearing or physical limitations that do not possess developmental or cognitive deficits can understand information that is appropriate to their age.
During stressful situations, safety and mobility become a heightened need for reassurance. Practice safety drills, patterns of exit/entry into safe places, use visual supports in conjunction with verbal signals, create a safety box of materials (flashlight, batteries for hearing aids, item of comfort), use concrete, clear explanations and check for understanding.
Emotional Behavioral limitations: Students with emotional or behavioral limitations can have limited coping skills for normal, every day life situations and are particularly vulnerable when exposed to trauma or stress. Increased noncompliance, physical and verbal aggression, elopement, oppositional behavior, and risk-taking behaviors (sexually acting out, substance abuse, self-injurious, suicidal thoughts, fascination with violence or weapons) are examples of critical warning signs that warrant immediate attention.
Reviewing functional behavioral assessments and Behavior Intervention Plans, establishing a check in system with mentors, providing immediate schedules of reinforcement and consistent routines with frequent breaks are strategies to employ.
Learning Disabilities: Students with learning limitations may require additional supports to process thoughts, feelings, and their understanding of events and information. They may experience challenges with concepts involving time, space, abstract reasoning, language and semantics.
Use concrete vocabulary terms, show visuals, provide clear, concise explanations and ensure their understanding.
Acts of healing that help special needs students process trauma and stress can benefit all children include:
- Making cards and writing letters to the parties involved
- Drawing and coloring in journals
- Honoring affected parties with acts of kindness
- Fundraising for relief efforts
- Volunteering for charitable events
Experiencing trauma and stress is universal to all children, but employing effective, specialized supports proactively can lessen the impact it has on their overall well-being. To learn more about helping children heal from trauma, visit https://www.nctsn.org