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Understanding Secondary Trauma and Stress in the Early Childhood Workforce

by Karen Ruprecht, Angela Tomlin, Kelley J. Perkins, and Stephan Viehweg


Early care and education workers are increasingly recognizing their role in helping children who have experienced trauma, including extended parental separations due to incarceration. These children may have emotional reactions and behaviors that are particularly challenging in group settings. Moreover, early care and education professionals themselves have often had challenging experiences in their own lives. As a result, there is a need for training and support to help the workforce recognize the secondary trauma and stress associated with caring for these young children. This article will explore how to establish systems and policies that support the early care and education workforce who are on the frontlines of helping children cope with trauma.

Early care and education practitioners increasingly encounter families and young children who have a history of difficult life experiences (Osofsky, 2009; Yoches, Summers, Beeber, Jones Harden, & Malik, 2012). These experiences might include poverty, parental mental health challenges, living in unsafe housing or community environments, homelessness, child abuse and neglect, witnessing domestic or community violence, unpredictable and repeated separations due to parental incarceration, or foster care placement. Other traumatic events include serious accidents, fires, or natural disasters such as floods or hurricanes.

Recognition of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs; see Box 1) has drawn attention to the long-term impact of these events on children’s emotional and physical well-being (Felitti et al., 1998). Exposure to traumatic events in early childhood is linked with immediate risks such as delays in development (Burke, Hellman, Scott, Weems, & Carrion, 2011; Cprek, Williamson, McDaniel, Brase, & Williams, 2020). In addition, ACEs can contribute to long-term mental and physical health problems including increased risk for cancer, diabetes, and early death (Felitti et al., 1998). The research on ACEs indicates these experiences are not uncommon, nor do they occur alone (Turney, 2018). According to national data, 10.9% of children younger than 6 years old have experienced two or more ACEs (Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, 2017).

Box 1. What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
The original 10 adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) include:

1. Physical abuse
2. Sexual abuse
3. Verbal abuse
4. Physical neglect
5. Emotional neglect
6. A family member who is depressed or diagnosed with mental illness
7. A family member addicted to alcohol or another substance
8. A family member in prison
9. Witnessing a mother being abused
10. Losing a parent to separation, divorce, or other reason.

Other ACE surveys have included additional ACEs such as exposure to racism, gender discrimination, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing violence outside the home, witnessing a father being abused by a mother, being bullied by a peer or adult, involvement with the foster care system, living in a war zone, living in an unsafe neighborhood, or losing a family member to deportation.

Source: [ACES Too High](

The recognition of ACEs in young children has not only increased awareness of how trauma impacts young children, but it has also reinforced the need to develop the skills and competencies of the early childhood workforce who may encounter children and families experiencing trauma. Children exposed to trauma need adults who can provide environments that are consistent and help them feel safe (Holmes, Levy, Smith, Pinne, & Neese, 2015). Professional development resources and training offered by state and national organizations regularly address topics such as behavior management, social–emotional development, recognizing trauma in young children, and how to create environments for children who are exposed to trauma. Often, these trainings are focused on helping children cope or develop skills to help them manage their complex emotions. Some trainings also focus on what the early childhood professional can do to help mitigate the traumatic experiences through specific teaching practices, room arrangements, or teaching calming techniques.

States have also recognized the impact that childhood trauma plays in children’s lives and have designed core knowledge and competencies to reflect the importance of understanding trauma and its impact on children. Professional credentials for those working with young children, including the Endorsements offered through the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health (n.d.), include documentation of competence in trauma-informed practice. Organizations such as ZERO TO THREE, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and others have produced position statements, webinars, or resources that help caregivers support and recognize the impact trauma has on young children (National Association for the Education of Young Children , n.d.; ZERO TO THREE, n.d.). These resources provide important information for parents and professionals on how to work with young children to help them cope through these difficult life circumstances. However, there is much less information available to help early care and education professionals cope with their own trauma. This article will focus on secondary trauma in early care and education fields, highlight the voices of early childhood professionals who work with children and families who have experienced incarceration and other difficult life circumstances, and suggest how systems and policies can help support the workforce. Finally, we offer a trauma-informed leadership perspective for early childhood organizations using an implementation science framework.

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