Study Links Child Trauma and School Performance

Children who underachieve academically can do so as a result of traumatic experiences. “Mental health professionals and educators who are unaware of a child’s trauma history or its impact may aggravate the situation by holding a child to unrealistic expectations or misinterpreting the child’s symptoms as indicative of bad conduct or another disorder,” said researchers from George Mason University and the University of Florida. “For students, the results of academic underachievement reach beyond the educational setting, often leading to deviant behaviors, fewer opportunities in life, and difficulty earning a living wage.” Symptoms of trauma can be misinterpreted as behavior problems because they often manifest as aggression, irritability, or hyperactivity. Some children internalize their trauma and appear moody, depressed and anxious.

Rachael D. Goodman of George Mason University, and her colleagues, conducted a study to examine the link between socioeconomic status, trauma, and academic achievement in a group of fifth grade students. The team analyzed data collected from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class 1998-99, which contained evaluations of the children over a six year period. They found a direct correlation between socioeconomic status (SES) and traumatic stress. “Analysis of the data found that the percentage of students who met the criteria for traumatic stress generally decreased as SES increased: 16.1% of low-SES students had traumatic stress, 10.6% of mid–low SES students, 11.2% of mid-SES students, 8.1% of mid– high SES students, and 6.9% of high-SES students,” said Goodman.

Additionally, the children who experienced trauma had significantly lower test scores on standardized tests. The researchers also noticed that children with traumatic stress were more likely to need individualized educational plans (IEP). “Whereas only 8.6% of students without an IEP on file had traumatic stress, 23.4% of students with an IEP on file had traumatic stress.” The team hopes these findings will help professionals more accurately identify children with stress when they are referred for help. They concluded, “In response to requests from teachers or administrators to assist with such a student, counselors can screen for the presence of traumatic stress before moving to behavioral solutions to improve classroom behavior.”

Goodman, R. D., Miller, M. D., & West-Olatunji, C. A. (2011, August 22). Traumatic Stress, Socioeconomic Status, and Academic Achievement Among Primary School Students. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024912

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • mason


    September 4th, 2011 at 5:16 AM

    Oh these kids are shortchanged in life in so many ways! First of all I am left baffled by anyone who would knowingly do harm to a child,a nd to think that this not only follows them in their relationships in life but that it can also affect their future success in the classroom and in life is mind blowing. How would you ever even do that knowing the harm that it causes?

  • Derrick J.

    Derrick J.

    September 4th, 2011 at 11:48 AM

    Wow,things can really get messy if they dont realize the child has problems…The child would be suffering from the inside and then he or she has the parents and school teachers yelling about the low scores…That definitely is not a comfortable situation to be in…!

  • Pauline Walker

    Pauline Walker

    September 4th, 2011 at 3:43 PM

    This just in! A child who has been abused or has suffered other traumatic events will be deeply disturbed and his attention will suffer significantly at school.

    We’ve known about that for so long it can become a plot point in an episode of Law and Order. There’s nothing new there to parents or teachers.

  • Sheila Welsh

    Sheila Welsh

    September 4th, 2011 at 5:37 PM

    @Pauline Walker: Yes, I think it has been a plot point more than once. Something bad happens to a child, their grades drop, socializing weakens, friends are ignored, they seldom talk, behavior starts to change… even if it can be over-dramatized in movies, this is commonplace.

    Which makes me ask, why didn’t we introduce screening for traumatic stress by counselors long ago if it’s so obvious to all and sundry, including TV screenwriters?

  • Jerome T.

    Jerome T.

    September 4th, 2011 at 5:53 PM

    Assessment prior to setting up IEP’s at all for traumatic stress would be an excellent idea to keep all the professionals on the same page from the start.

    This is how you can often spot the kids that are being abused or living a terrible home life out of nowhere. Their grades plummet and so does their confidence. Their test scores rarely match their obvious intelligence. Their behavior swings from one extreme to another in phases, from quiet to suddenly loud or vice versa. They stop caring about their appearance when before they did.

    I worked with disadvantaged kids in a voluntary setting and can tell the signs a mile away. It really changed how I looked at the world to where I stopped wanting to go outside.

  • shanna


    September 5th, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    One thing that could help here is to have the teachhers in the know about what is presently going on in the child’s life and to have a little bit of background history that could help them as well.

    Teachers can be such a great touch stone for valuable information in a child’s life but if they are left out of the loop then there is some doubt as to what kind of good that they can do.

    Keep them informed and updated and I can just about promise you that they are going to do the same for you.

  • c.taylor


    September 5th, 2011 at 1:17 PM

    you know,for a child school grades are a big thing and at that age even the smallest of things seem incident which may not even be so bad can quickly turn into a nightmare for a child.this will reflect on his grades and the parents are wondering why!they do not try to get to know the reason but pressurize the child and it worsens…

  • Jason


    September 5th, 2011 at 10:39 PM

    Although trauma affecting school grades is understandable,I am disappointed to read about how much of an influence social and economic statuses have on the presence of trauma in means we are still not able to provide a decent life to the underprivileged and that benefits may not be reaching them in full!

  • stevie matthews

    stevie matthews

    September 6th, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    Trauma affects everything, not just school performance! A guy I used to work with was deployed to Iraq and came back after his posting a different man. He could not handle the fact that he had killed a terrorist. Taking a human life hit him very hard and he has not been the same since.

    Even his eyes look so very different. It’s tragic. I can’t imagine how his family copes with that, knowing they encouraged him to enlist.When a grown man can’t handle PSTD, how can we think a child will any better?

  • j.l.


    September 6th, 2011 at 11:14 PM

    @stevie-A similar story. I heard about an old school friend of mine that had found a dead body in the woods when he was about ten years old. That really shook him up and he actually stopped coming to school altogether after a while. I’d often wondered where he had went.

    Turns out he was home tutored after that. It took over a year of counseling to help him get over it apparently. He couldn’t however face coming back and answering questions about why he’d been away.

  • Jennifer Laure

    Jennifer Laure

    September 10th, 2011 at 10:25 PM

    Children who have been affected by a traumatic event are disadvantaged in more than one way. These children are also disadvantaged socially and i’m sure in a few other ways too. I agree that teachers shouldn’t expect children suffering from traumatic events to perform at the same levels as the rest of the children, these teachers are delusional if they do imo.

    The trauma suffering student’s disadvantage should be accounted for much like it is for special education students. I also believe that these students should receive in school counseling to help with improvement in school. Since students who suffer from traumatic incidents don’t do poorly in school because of intelligence we should use counseling not special ed to put them back on the right track.

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