How can understanding trauma make me a better educator?

The MiniPD team thanks Katia Dantas, MiniPD Coach, for contributing the article below. Katia is a MiniPD Coach and a leading international expert in child protection dedicated to the prevention of institutional abuse with a focus on organizations targeting children and adolescents. With 20 years of academic and professional multidisciplinary experience in preventing and responding to violence against vulnerable populations, Katia has worked with key global organizations, leading global and regional efforts to prevent and respond to the disappearance of children and adolescents, and child abuse and exploitation, both online and offline.

Enjoy this great 5 minute read from Katia.

Schools should be those magic places where children are offered spaces that enable learning opportunities, both academically socially/emotionally. And for the average child, those spaces are real. But for many children who are facing some level of trauma or who are struggling with mental illnesses, the school can be a place of struggle, not knowledge.

Impact of abuse and neglect

Recent neuroscientific studies have made incredible contributions to our understanding of how our brains work and the levels of impact stress, trauma and traumatic events can have on our brain functioning. One of the most important studies available looked into the impact of abuse and neglect on a child’s brain. The study, designed by CDC-Kaiser Permanente, has shown that people who had experienced four or more adverse childhood exposure (ACE), had 12 times higher chances of suffering from alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempt in adulthood than a person with no ACEs (Vincent J Felitti MD, 1998).

Impact of mild and traumatic stress

Many other studies have shown how highly vulnerable our brains are to even mild stresses (Amy Arnsten, 2012). But studies also show that for children enduring traumatic stress, the results are far more reaching and long-lasting (J. Douglas Bremner, 2006). Traumatic stress results in an increase in stress hormone levels every time the child is faced with reminders of the trauma (trauma triggers) (J. Douglas Bremner, 2006). And the increase in stress levels decreases the child’s ability to learn (Susanne Vogel, 2016).                                                                                              

But learning difficulties are not the only change in a traumatized child’s life. And this is a critical part of understanding trauma. Trauma affects the way we perceive the environment around us, and how we react to the stimuli around us, and, in many instances, it deeply affects our brain functioning, including activating our primitive brain and reducing our rational brain in the presence of a stressor (trauma trigger). What is more important: traumatic memories are not always conscious. Smells, sensations, and even words can trigger our primitive brains, and those triggers are not always conscious.

Sam’s story

Dr. Bruce Perry, in his book “What happened to you?” shares the story of Sam, a 14-year-old boy, who was removed from his parents – along with all of his four younger siblings – at the age of 7 by Child Protective Services in the U.S. as a result of extreme neglect (Bruce D. Perry, 2021). He was the major target of most of the violent attacks committed by his alcoholic father and while he had struggled to get his life back on track, thanks to therapy and support from the new shelter’s team, he was much better off, improving his social skills, developing self-control in frustrating situations, and was much more focused and hopeful. However, he started displaying major outbursts with his new teacher – a very popular and well-liked teacher in the school. No one understood where those outbursts were coming from, not even Sam. Until one day, when Dr. Perry took Sam to supervised visitation with his father. The smell of “Old Spice”, a popular deodorant in the United States, was very prominent in Sam’s father, possibly as an attempt to mask the smell of alcohol in his body. That’s when Dr. Perry had a breakthrough in the case. Sam was reacting to the deodorant, in an unconscious, programmed reaction of his battered brain when he had the outburst with the teacher, who also used the same deodorant. A simple change in deodorants, and Sam was back to his old self…

Reframing our approach as educators

This is just one of many examples in his book of how critical it is for us educators to reframe our approach to children struggling with trauma or other underlying mental illnesses. By asking “what happened to you” as opposed to asking “what’s wrong with you” (Bruce D. Perry, 2021) we can better understand the learned behaviors our children have and how we can better support them in learning new coping mechanisms or new and more appropriate responses to the situations they will face. But why should we go through all of this trouble if I am not a therapist? 

Well, research shows that trusted adults can have a very positive impact on protecting children and supporting children living with trauma (Robinson LR, 2016). How? By fostering strong, stable, and nurturing relationships (Robinson LR, 2016). By fostering healthy relationships and environments that are predictable and consistent, we can be better positioned to offer a more child-centered and sensitive response to the child’s emotional, physical, cognitive, and social needs (Robinson LR, 2016). This is not only an essential part of trauma healing but a central piece in safeguarding as well. So, if we can impact our students positively, why not give it a try?

Katia is CEO and founder of Educação Protegida is a consulting company that emerged after the long journey of a mother working in abuse prevention with various stakeholders, target audiences, and multiple perspectives for the protection and prevention of child sexual abuse and institutional abuse.

Join the Conversation

We invited educators from around the world to join us in a Coaches-in-Conversation on on our theme, Child Protection, Trauma and Vulnerable Groups on 17 November 2022.  Here’s a recording of the conversation.

To learn more about identifying trauma symptoms and how to be a trauma informed educator?

Recommended Reads and References from the MiniPD Team and Katia Dantas

Amy Arnsten, C. M. (2012, Apr). Neural circuits responsible for conscious self-control are highly vulnerable to even mild stress. When they shut down, primal impulses go unchecked and mental paralysis sets in. Sci Am., pp. 306(4):48-53. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0412-48

Amy F.T. Arnsten, a. M. (2015, Jan 1). The effects of stress exposure on prefrontal cortex: Translating basic research into successful treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. Neurobiol Stress., pp. 89–99. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2014.10.002

Bruce D. Perry, O. W. (2021). What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.

Douglas Bremner, J, M. (2006, Dec). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues Clin Neurosci., 8(4), pp. 445–461. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/jbremner

MiniPD Coaches, 2022, Promoting Wellness and Fostering Belonging, Monthly Content, Practical Strategies from Educators

Robinson LR, L. R. (2016, May). Conceptualizing and Measuring Safe, Stable, Nurturing Relationships and Environments in Educational Settings. J Child Fam Stud, 25(5), pp. 1488-1504. doi: 10.1007/s10826-015-0332-2

Susanne Vogel, L. S. (2016, June 29). Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom. npj Science Learn. doi:

Vincent J Felitti MD, F. F. (1998, May 1). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults – The Advserse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), pp. p245-258. doi:

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