Complex PTSD: Trauma, Learning, and Behavior in the Classroom

By Fabiana Franco, Ph.D.
~ 5 min read

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) occurs with repeated ongoing exposure to traumatic events. Often CPTSD is a result of early traumatic relationships with caregivers. In this article we consider the effects of early traumatic relationships on learning.

Many children with a history of trauma have trouble with learning in the classroom and do not perform as well as their peers. The connection between early interpersonal trauma and learning is particularly relevant when considering the ability to maintain attention and concentration. Often, early traumatic relationships impair more than emotion regulation abilities. Cognitive capacities are also deeply affected since the ability to focus and concentrate is largely dependent upon emotion regulation.

Early attachment relationships and learning

Early relationships have a direct impact on cognitive, social and emotional development. This is because an infant/child who is raised in a safe and supportive environment has ample opportunity for exploration as well as the availability of comfort from a trusted caregiver.

One of the ways infants learn is through play and exploration of their environment. When thinking about this stage of development it is crucial to understand that an infant’s biological system is not mature enough to calm itself in times of fear or upset. This is why young children and infants reach for a trusted adult when they feel fear or uncertainty. In a secure relationship, opportunities abound for curiosity and exploration. At the same time, the infant is protected from unhealthy levels of stress, when he/she needs comfort, it is available.

Attachment researchers call this phenomenon a “secure base” in which the caregiver encourages the child to lay, with providing safety and security for the infant when needed. Exploratory play coupled with protection provide an optimal environment for learning. Researchers have noted traumatized infants tend to spend less time in exploratory play (Hoffman, Marvin, Cooper & Powell, 2006).

An example

Let’s imagine a young child in a playground. She is less than a year old and not quite walking on her own yet. With mom nearby she can explore, perhaps by playing in the sandbox and learning how her toy car moves differently over sand in comparison to the kitchen floor at home. She is learning important information about the world. While she plays while she is keeping an eye on mom, making sure she is near. If anything happens to cause fear, perhaps a big dog strays onto the playground, a predictable scenario plays out. The child begins to cry, afraid of the dog. Mom is here to help. She picks up her infant and soothes her distress, walks away from the animal, and relatively soon, the infant is calm again.

In a traumatic relationship, mom may not recognize she needs to help her child. She may not be afraid of dogs and does not understand the infant’s reaction. She may decide to let the infant learn about dogs without her help. Perhaps the child gets bit by the dog or is allowed to scream frantically while the big, unfamiliar animal investigates her, and still mom does not react in an appropriate calming way. She may let her child learn the dog is safe (or not safe) without getting involved. Alternatively, she may escalate the situation with her own fear of dogs and scare the child even more.

In terms of emotional and cognitive development, these two infants are dealing with very different internal and external environments. Internally, the traumatized infant’s developing nervous system is exposed to ongoing heightened states of stress hormones that circulate through the developing brain and nervous system. Since the infant is left on her own to recover from a traumatic event, all of her resources are required to bring herself back to a state of balance. Researchers in the field of neuropsychology have pointed out that when an infant is required to manage its own stress without help, he or she can do nothing else (Schore, 2001). All energies are dedicated to calming the brain and body from significant stress. In this situation, valuable opportunities for social and cognitive learning are lost.

It is important to understand that all parents at some time fail to soothe their child when he/she is distressed. Healthy children do not require perfect parenting; it is the continued ongoing trauma that is detrimental to development.

Hypervigilance — The impact of early traumatic relationships in the classroom

Children raised in violent or emotionally traumatic households often develop hypervigilance to environmental cues. More than just a “common sense” response to an abusive environment, hypervigilance occurs because of the way the nervous system has organized itself in response to persistent fear and anxiety during the earliest years of development (Creeden, 2004). Hypervigilance to other’s emotional cues is adaptive when living in a threatening environment. However, hypervigilance becomes maladaptive in the classroom and impedes the child’s ability to pay attention to school work. For the traumatized child, school work may be thought of as irrelevant in an environment that requires attention dedicated to physical and emotional protection of self (Creeden, 2004).

An example

Imagine a time when you were very upset or unsure of your physical or emotional safety. Perhaps an important relationship is threatened after a particularly heated argument and you feel you are at a loss of how to fix it. Imagine you had a violent encounter with a parent, or are dealing with sexual abuse at home. Now imagine, in this situation, trying to focus your attention on the conjugation of verbs, or long division. It is likely you would find this impossible.

What can be done?

It’s important that we understand the roots of learning and behavioral difficulties in the classroom so we can address them with therapy rather than prescribing medications (Streeck-Fischer, & van der Kolk, 2000). Some children who cannot focus in the classroom may be wrongly diagnosed and never offered the help they need.

There are effective ways to help children with past trauma in their learning environments. Adults need to understand that for a traumatized child, challenging behaviors are rooted in extreme stress, inability to manage emotion, and inadequate problem solving skills (Henry et al, 2007). In these circumstances, the child will likely respond more positively to a non-threatening learning environment. Children with traumatic histories need the opportunities to build trust and practice focusing their attention on learning rather than survival. A supportive environment will allow for safe exploration of the physical and emotional environment. This strategy applies to children of various ages. Older children also need to feel safe in the classroom and when working with adults such as teachers and other professionals. Frustrated teachers may believe children with challenging behaviors are hopeless and just not interested in learning. The teacher may insult the child, respond with sarcasm or just give up on the child. Teachers may fail to protect the child from teasing or ridicule from their peers. In this way, the teacher is also contributing to the threatening environment the child has come to expect.

New understanding, new opportunities

A shift in understanding is required for teachers and other professionals working with traumatized children in the classroom. Supportive environments can give these children a chance to modify their behavior and develop coping skills. This change in adult’s perception of why the child is unable to focus on schoolwork will hopefully lead to a change in attitude.

Even more importantly, children with trauma in their early history are in need of therapy and support. With understanding and appropriate therapeutic intervention, these children will have a much better chance at healing past trauma and developing the ability to focus, learn in the classroom and respond differently to challenging situations.


Baker, L.L. & Jaffe, P.G. (2007). Woman abuse affects our children: An educator’s guide. Developed by the English language Expert Panel for Educators, Ontario.

Creeden, K. (2004). The neurodevelopmental impact of early trauma and insecure attachment: Re-thinking our understanding and treatment of sexual behavior problems. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 11, 223-247.

Henry, J., & Sloane, M., & Black-Pond, C. (2007). Neurobiology and neurodevelopmental impact of childhood traumatic stress and prenatal alcohol exposure. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 38, 99-108.

Hoffman, K. T., Marvin, R. S., Cooper, G., & Powell, B. (2006). Changing toddlers’ and preschoolers’ attachment classifications: The Circle of Security Intervention. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 1017-1026.

Schore, A. N. (2001). The effects of early relational trauma on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant mental health journal, 22(1‐2), 201-269.

Streeck-Fischer, A., & van der Kolk, B. A. (2000). Down will come baby, cradle and all: Diagnostic and therapeutic implications of chronic trauma on child development. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 34(6), 903-918.