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Trauma-Informed Practices in Early Childhood Education

Jessica Dym Bartlett, Child Tre nds,Bethesda, Maryland

Abstract

Trauma early in life can significantly impair children’s development, mental health, and learning, placing them at risk for poor mental and physical health problems throughout life. Young children experience trauma more often, and are more vulnerable to its harmful effects, than older children. Early childhood education (ECE) programs regularly work with traumatized children and their families, often without adequate training in trauma-informed care (TIC). Implementing TIC in ECE can increase the chances that young traumatized children recover, thrive, and enter kindergarten ready to learn. This article discusses specific approaches to TIC in ECE and related implications for the field.

Two-year-old Imani entered her new classroom clinging to the leg of her foster mother, with whom she had been placed 1 week earlier. After peering around the room for several minutes, she spotted the breakfast table and ran over to grab the cereal container. She was so focused on eating she hardly noticed her foster mother saying goodbye. After a third bowl of cereal, a teacher gently suggested she “take a break to play.” Imani fell to the ground in tears. For the remainder of the morning, she flitted about, unable to settle on an activity. But when the food cart paused by the hall window, Imani’s attention became highly focused on the cart—and when she was not allowed to leave the classroom to get to it, her behavior escalated. She screamed, pushed, and tried to bite anyone that came near her, and wriggled free from teachers who tried to calm her. By lunchtime, Imani’s teachers were emotionally exhausted, and out of strategies to distract, engage, or comfort her. Imani’s foster mother was asked to take her home, and the director called me, an infant and early childhood mental health consultant. After meeting with her teachers, foster family, and a child protective services worker, we learned Imani had been severely neglected in her biological home, often going without food. By forming close partnerships with the adults in Imani’s life, and with new understanding of the trauma reminders (e.g., food) that triggered Imani’s challenging behaviors, we were able to develop and implement a successful trauma-informed plan to help her heal.

Stories like Imani’s (name changed for privacy) can be found every day in early childhood education (ECE) settings. Compared to older children and adolescents, young children are disproportionately exposed to trauma, defined here as the perception of events or circumstances as extremely frightening, threating, or harmful to one’s physical or emotional safety (Bartlett & Sacks, 2019; National Child Traumatic Stress Network [NCTSN], n.d.). Estimates of the prevalence of exposure to potentially traumatic events prior to kindergarten range from 26–70% of children in the United States, with those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and living in poverty experiencing the highest rates (Briggs-Gowen et al., 2010; Clarkson Freeman, 2014; Jimenez et al., 2016). Moreover, young children are at particularly high risk for exposure to some of the most common causes of trauma, including child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, and unintentional injuries (Children’s Bureau, 2020; Fantuzzo & Fusco, 2007; Grossman, 2000). For example, children under 3 years old have the highest rates of child maltreatment, comprising more than one quarter (28%) of all victims (Children’s Bureau, 2020). Remarkably, these figures underestimate child trauma, as some of the most widely cited population-level surveys do not account for exposure to many common and harmful social determinants of health that lead to trauma in young children (e.g., extreme poverty, homelessness, natural disasters, pandemics, painful injuries and medical conditions; Bartlett, 2020; McEwen & Gregerson, 2019).

In the last 2 decades, direct service providers and researchers across fields of practice have shown increased understanding of the impacts of trauma in the first few years of a child’s life. This growing awareness has included increased attention to developing and implementing trauma-informed interventions in ECE settings. To help support ECE programs and staff in addressing the needs of traumatized infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, this article describes the unique impacts of trauma on young children and their related needs, and it provides examples of trauma-informed care (TIC) that can be implemented in ECE to increase young children’s chances of resilience—the dynamic process of positive adaptation in the context of significant adversity (Luthar et al., 2000).

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