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| 1 minute read

We May Not Need Trauma-Focused Teaching

One fashionable trend is trauma-focused teaching, designed to help students who have suffered trauma learn in the classroom. The underlying beliefs are that (1) Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) keep children from learning, (2) large numbers of children have suffered ACEs and other trauma, and that (3) helping kids discuss their trauma helps them learn. None of these beliefs, however, has much (if any) evidence supporting them.

For example, the famous ACE study did show an increased correlation in a large population between ACEs and later health problems. More recent studies, however, have not shown any ability to predict later problems in individuals. Similar studies have shown correlation between ACEs and mental health issues, but none have shown any individualized predictive effects. In other words, it's impossible to say that a given child in a given classroom needs trauma-informed teaching methods.

There's also no evidence that large numbers of children have suffered traumatic events. I've seen popular statistics that 25% or 67% of children have suffered trauma. When I looked for the source of the statistics, I found two small studies. One study (the source of the 67% figure) interviewed 1420 children in western North Carolina. The other study reported on 1152 children living in and around New Haven, CT.  Neither study did any independent verification of the children's or parents' reports.  While those studies may be valuable in other respects, they do no provide enough evidence to justify a wholesale change in education curriculum.

Finally, there is increasing evidence that requiring people to confront negative thoughts may do more harm than good. One study of trigger warnings found that they don't help trauma survivors and may actively hurt them. A more recent study during COVID suggests that suppressing negative thoughts improves mental health more than dredging them up.

Of course, individualized plans such as IEPs and 504 plans need to deal with a child’s trauma history. There's  also no doubt that trauma-focused therapy has benefits for trauma survivors, including children. Both individual accommodations and trauma-focused therapy, however, focus on individual needs rather than broad populations. Both also involve techniques that are hard (if not impossible) to replicate in groups. Picking up the concepts and trying to transplant them to an entirely different context doesn't have any supporting evidence and may be actively harmful. We should do much, much more research before jumping on this new bandwagon.

Dr Mamat said: “It was very clear that those events that participants practiced suppressing were less vivid, less emotionally anxiety-inducing, than the other events and that overall, participants improved in terms of their mental health. But we saw the biggest effect among those participants who were given practice at suppressing fearful, rather than neutral, thoughts.”


youth services law, ausburn_deborah, education, schools, insights, mental health research