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Understanding and Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Early Learning Curriculum

Jul 26, 2023    |   Early Childhood Mental Health
early childhood educator caring for child using trauma-informed care and trauma-sensitive curriculum

In recent years, the field of child development has studied the impact of early trauma and the benefits of trauma-informed care for young children. As educators, we understand that the pandemic intensified the incidence and impact of trauma on the lives of many children and families, but we do not always have the guidance and tools to help us ensure that our own early childhood programs are using trauma-informed practices. In this article, we describe the benefits and characteristics of trauma-informed early care and learning programs, and share resources to help you develop a curriculum that is trauma-sensitive. 

Early trauma refers to a variety of negative and adverse experiences that cause a child’s sense of safety to be put in danger. Trauma can take many forms, including abuse, neglect, poverty, a severe accident. A 2017 Department of Health & Human Resources report explains that traumatic experiences are especially harmful when they occur during the earliest years of life, when the brain is still developing and is therefore particularly vulnerable. Trauma that occurs during the ages of 0-3 years old can have lifelong consequences. 

As caregivers and educators, we have an opportunity to help mitigate some of these negative impacts. ZERO TO THREE explains, “When babies have the support of loving adults after traumatic events, the research shows they are more likely to recover without lasting damage.” This is why our work is so critical. We can provide safe, nurturing, and loving environments that have the power to lessen the potential negative impacts of trauma.  

Practices for Trauma-Sensitive Educators

The following steps, often referred to as the “4 R’s,” were introduced by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to offer a framework for trauma-informed care. Each of the four steps is reinforced by the ECE provider’s ability to become aware of and sensitive to each child’s unique experiences. 

1. Realize the Impact of Trauma. 

Because trauma-sensitive educators understand that traumatic and adverse experiences negatively impact healthy brain development in young children, they provide compassion, support, and nurturing for all children in their classrooms. 

2. Recognize the Signs and Symptoms of Trauma.

Traumatic experiences can cause children to be especially anxious, act out, and have difficulty concentrating. Because trauma-sensitive educators understand that challenging behaviors can indicate that children have experienced hardship, they offer compassion to little ones when they are struggling and look for ways to help them be successful in the classroom. 

3. Respond by creating warm, nurturing learning environments. 

Trauma-sensitive educators create dependable classroom routines that help children to feel safe and cared for. They build trusting relationships with the children in their care and are responsive to each child’s unique needs. 

4. Resist triggering potential trauma histories. 

Trauma-sensitive educators understand that children who have experienced trauma may be particularly sensitive to things such as loud noises or abrupt changes in routine. To help, they talk with families about the needs and preferences of individual children in their care so that they can set up a space in which every child feels safe, cared for, and valued. 

Characteristics of Trauma-Sensitive ECE Curriculum

Incorporating a trauma-sensitive curriculum is beneficial for all children, even those without a history of explicit trauma, because it creates an environment in which safety, belonging, and relationship-building are at the heart of the classroom’s curriculum. 

Relationships are kept at the heart of the work.

When working with young children, forming trusting and meaningful relationships is everything. This is especially true for children who have lived through negative life events or traumatic experiences. A safe relationship with a caregiver in which a child feels nurtured and cared for can establish a sense of belonging. Research shows that nurturing relationships contribute to positive life outcomes for children, whether or not they have experienced trauma. These positive relationships also support children’s resiliency to future trauma. 

In an article for Edutopia, curriculum and instruction specialist Roisleen Todd advises that, “Childhood trauma is correlated with significant challenges later in life, but these challenges can be mitigated through a safe, nurturing relationship between the child and an adult. We can be these adults…We build strong relationships with students by showing them, time and time again, that we believe in their abilities to grow and that they will always be accepted and supported in our care.”

Routines are consistent to establish safety and security. 

Consistent routines are critically important in ECE classrooms, because children feel safe when they know what to expect throughout the day. When we have dependable daily routines in place, children get into a rhythm in which they know what is coming next. This helps them to feel comfortable and safe in the classroom. 

A policy brief, written by University of Chicago professor Micere Keels, notes that “Creating predictable routines is key. The brain-body systems of children experiencing chronic traumatic stress are in a constant state of arousal readiness in preparation for the recurrence of threat…Strategies that promote stability and familiarity reduce the need for the stress system to be as actively engaged.”

There is empathy for challenging behaviors. 

Young children are still developing their emotional regulation and their ability to communicate their feelings. This stage of development, paired with high stress levels and fear responses that negatively affect the brain, can lead to behaviors that many educators can view as challenging. 

According to NAEYC, “For children living with trauma, the stress response can become their regular manner of functioning…When children live in a constant state of fear and are not supported in the regulation of their emotions, the amygdala (the brain’s regulator of emotions and emotional behaviors) tends to be overused, causing it to overdevelop. This can result in children being highly impulsive and reactive and unable to complete higher-level thinking tasks.” 

Because we do not always know what kinds of situations the children in our care have encountered outside of school, it is important that we respond to challenging behaviors with a sense of empathy. This does not mean that we do not set boundaries for negative behaviors, but when those behaviors occur, we can maintain a sense of curiosity about what the child is trying to communicate. From there, we can consider alternative options for helping the child express their needs and feelings in a more productive way.

Resources for Additional Information

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