Early Childhood

The impact of trauma on infants and toddlers can be particularly harmful, and place them on a compromised developmental path. On the other hand, the potential for developmental change during this early period of life may allow them to rebound from traumatic events — especially if they experience stable, nurturing caregiving.

Young children are exposed to trauma at high rates.

In a child care or Pre-K educational program, trauma exposure can often be seen in challenging behaviors — aggression, tantrums, refusal to participate, and running away. This behavior disrupts the learning environment and frustrates the teachers and childcare workers.

Young children who experience trauma may:

  • Have difficulties forming an attachment to caregivers
  • Experience excessive fear of strangers or separation anxiety
  • Have trouble eating and sleeping
  • Be especially fussy and difficult to console
  • Show regression after reaching a developmental milestone
  • Throw frequent tantrums
  • Demonstrate aggressive behavior such as biting, hitting, pushing

School-age children who experience trauma may:

  • Engage in aggressive behavior
  • Become withdrawn
  • Fixate on their own safety or the safety of others
  • Re-enact the traumatic event through play
  • Have frequent nightmares
  • Have difficulty concentrating
  • Exhibit a strong need to control peers, or have power struggles with adults

Head Start Trauma Smart Program

Trauma-informed early education benefits children, family and staff.

Reducing negative behaviors in children enables more time-on-task with instruction, calmer classrooms, improved learning outcomes, and enhanced social and emotional growth. Giving staff the information they need to be trauma-informed strengthens their job satisfaction, and can result in lower staff turnover.

Since many young children are being raised by parents who were victims of maltreatment themselves, practitioners should support parents and caregivers to adopt healthier child-rearing practices to help break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

This is what trauma-informed early education looks like.

  • All staff, including childcare workers, classroom teachers, administrators, food workers and bus drivers, are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma, and its impact on the young brain.
  • Social emotional learning, with an emphasis on emotional regulation is part of daily instruction, and is modeled by staff. Staff shares with parents, so skills can be modeled at home.
  • Partnerships are formed with local mental health providers to teach staff strategies to handle aggressive behavior.
  • A restorative approach to discipline focuses on teaching emotional regulation skills and empathy through appropriate consequences, rather than suspending or expelling a child from care.

  • Staff provides training for parents and caregivers to build strength and resiliency, and connects families to needed social services.
  • Collaboration among administration, staff and parents, along with health, social and community partners — provides as much wrap-around support and integrated care as possible, for both the child and the family.
  • A sense of physical and emotional safety is created throughout the center from the receptionist desk to the classroom to the playground.
  • Administrators create an environment that promotes self-care and wellness among the staff, which is demonstrated in agency policies as well.

How toxic stress impacts early brain development

Early Childhood Resources


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