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Implementing Trauma-informed Practice in Early Childhood Settings

by Tom Hanlon / Jun 7, 2022

teacher and students using building blocks in Pre-K classroom

The College of Education is offering a new online certificate of specialization to inform educators and other professionals how to evaluate the impact of trauma on child development, modify learning environments to become trauma-informed, and design practical solutions to trauma-related issues.

Twenty-six percent of children in the US will witness or experience a traumatic event before they turn four. (The American Psychological Association describes “trauma” as an event or series of events that result in disturbing experiences and negatively affect an individual. Examples of trauma include coming up against abuse or neglect, natural disasters, losing a loved one, and living in community violence.)

Children exposed to five or more significant adverse experiences in their first three years of life are 76% more likely to have one or more delays in their language, emotional, or brain development.

It’s for these realities and many more like them that the Department of Special Education in the College of Education is this fall launching a new online certificate of specialization called Trauma-informed Education.

For a Range of Interdisciplinary Students and Professionals

The program is open to students and professionals alike, and in neither case is restricted to students in the College or professionals in the field of education.

“There are a lot of professionals who work with young children who have experienced trauma, and they’re not all education professionals,” says Jessica Hardy, an assistant professor in Special Education. “The certificate is available to anyone who needs concentrated coursework in this topic.”

Michaelene Ostrosky, Grayce Wicall Gauthier Professor of Education in Special Education, adds that the course is for anyone, anywhere—including internationally—who works with children either with or without disabilities. “It’s for teachers, social workers, people who work in childcare,” she says. “It’s not just classroom-based. It’s for anyone who is interested in understanding how trauma impacts child development, behavior, and educational experiences.”

The subject matter already has drawn great interest to previous trauma-informed offerings from the College. Through a grant obtained several years ago by Ostrosky and Amy Santos, associate provost for faculty development, an online asynchronous module focused on early childhood trauma was developed and offered free of charge to early childhood professionals. Interest in the module content led to the development of a master’s program with a focus on trauma, including a certificate. “That came out of a needs assessment that we did,” says Catherine Corr, assistant professor in Special Education. We opened the module up to the public in 2017 and over one thousand people have taken it. We’ve had folks in social work, education, nursing, dentistry, and many other fields sign up to learn more about trauma.” 

How Educators, Professionals Are Equipped

The 12 to 14 credit-hour certificate is designed to help participants:

  • evaluate the impact of trauma on child development,
  • understand the complex relationship between trauma and disability,
  • modify existing learning environments to become trauma-informed,
  • facilitate self-care practices and reflection opportunities in everyday education practices, and
  • research and design practical solutions to issues related to trauma in education.

Applied Work

“We see this as part of our larger approach to early childhood special education,” Ostrosky says. “As the certificate hopefully grows, it will likely morph over time to meet changing needs in the field as they arise.”

One thing that won’t change with the certificate is its priority on making the learning practical. “This is our research area,” says Ostrosky, referring to Corr, Hardy, and herself. “We’re all very committed to doing applied work.”

To that end, the certificate includes a research-to-practice course sequence where students apply what they’ve learned about trauma by designing a small research study examining a problem in their particular practice.

“The course gives students an overview of what trauma is, what trauma-informed practice looks like in schools and in social work and in other early childhood settings, how that trauma impacts child development, and it gives them some skills to use in making changes in their own classroom or work environment,” says Corr.

A "Trauma-informed Lens"

The online courses will be offered synchronously, but will be recorded so that if students miss a class, they can still view it, Corr says.

“There are lots of opportunities to engage with fellow classmates,” she adds. “One great benefit is the interdisciplinary model we’ve created. Students who have taken our classes tell us they’ve created friendships and relationships with others in the class, and they understand other disciplines so much better than they typically do. It’s breaking down some barriers and giving people a greater appreciation for their colleagues in other fields, which is great.”

Hardy points out another benefit. “Students who have attended our trauma seminars in the past come away with this trauma-informed lens. They talk about trauma when we talk about instructional procedures and assessment. They bring a much deeper understanding than a typical student does about trauma, and they’re able to apply it to their other coursework that shows the impact those courses have on them.” 

Exciting New Venture

“This is something that’s been percolating for a few years, and we’re excited to finally be able to offer it,” Ostrosky says. She adds that the courses are stackable onto a master’s program; if students decide they want to get a master’s in early childhood special education, the coursework will transfer into their master’s program.

“Having this specialization is a new venture for our department,” Corr notes. “It will be interesting to see the results and if there are other ways we can continue to reach more people who need this education—not just in trauma but in other areas of expertise that we have within our department.”

Learn more and apply for the certificate of specialization in Trauma-informed Education.