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What are the differences between trauma and learning difficulties in young children? And why is it important to be able to recognise them?

Posted: 12/10/2021

Given that both trauma and learning difficulties can have significant impacts on a child’s outcomes in later life, it is important to know how to recognise them in order to provide appropriate support. What we often don’t talk about is that trauma and learning disabilities may present in similar ways in young children.

Many teachers, early learning facilitators and social workers say they are seeing higher and higher rates of trauma, behavioural challenges, developmental delays and learning difficulties/disabilities in young children. They know that the earlier we can identify and support children appropriately, the better the long term outcomes are for the child.

But sometimes being able to identify the difference between trauma-related behaviours, developmental delays and learning difficulties can be challenging.

 

One of the reasons for this is that childhood trauma may initially present as a developmental delay, learning difficulty or a behavioural issue. Children who have experienced trauma can be in a constant state of vigilance or arousal (fight/flight/flee) which can make it difficult for them to concentrate, focus, pay attention or retain information. Not surprisingly, the Australia Institute of Health and Welfare has found that child abuse and neglect can have a wide range of significant adverse impacts on a child’s development and capacity to learn, including: 

  • reduced social skills
  • poor school performance
  • impaired language ability.

 

Adding to the complexity, children who are experiencing learning difficulties or disabilities may exhibit behaviours that are similar to those exhibited by children who are experiencing trauma.  The US National Institute of Child Health and Development states that a child with a learning disability may have one or more of the following behaviours:

  • Acting without really thinking about possible outcomes (impulsiveness)
  • ‘Acting out’ in school or social situations
  • Difficulty staying focused; being easily distracted
  • Difficulty saying a word correctly out loud or expressing thoughts
  • Problems with school performance from week to week or day to day
  • Speaking like a younger child; using short, simple phrases; or leaving out words in sentences
  • Having a hard time listening
  • Problems dealing with changes in schedule or situations
  • Problems understanding words or concepts

Many of these behaviours can also be found in children who have experienced or are experiencing trauma.

When children are experiencing trauma, it is not uncommon for them to be misdiagnosed as having a learning disability or developmental delay. While a child who is experiencing trauma may need supports around their learning, if the underlying trauma isn’t acknowledged and addressed, any educational or developmental interventions are likely to be less successful.

 

How do I recognise the difference between trauma-related learning difficulties and behaviours, and learning disabilities?

This is not always straight-forward or easy. The most important thing you can do is not make assumptions or jump to conclusions about what a child is experiencing or what is motivating their behaviour.

The Raising Children Network suggest that if children dislike or avoid activities that involve reading, writing, maths or find these things hard, or if they have trouble spelling simple words, this may be a sign they are struggling with aspects of learning. In consultation with parents, seek the advice of experts as soon as possible if you suspect a child has a learning difficulty or disability. The earlier a child receives support, the less it will impact on their long term educational outcomes.

Experts who work as part of a multidisciplinary team (which may include psychologists, social workers, speech pathologists, GPs, disability support workers  and other health professionals) or who have expertise in both trauma and learning disabilities are best placed to make an informed assessment of the child’s support needs.

If you suspect that a child’s learning difficulties may stem from trauma, the Australia Institute of Family Studies suggests the following:

  • provide safe environments;
  • support children and caregivers to understand links between traumatic experiences and cognitive difficulties;
  • develop and support positive relationships in children’s lives;
  • offer all children targeted trauma-specific interventions;
  • maintain these interventions throughout childhood and adolescence; and
  • ensure separate cognitive difficulties are addressed directly.

 

Given that many children who have experienced trauma will need support around their education and learning, it is always useful to provide this help. In fact, supporting children who have experienced trauma in relation to their learning can be a powerful way to minimise the impact of the trauma in the long term, as long as it is done in conjunction with other trauma-informed strategies and supports. (Children who have experienced trauma in the early years have a higher risk of long term socio-economic disadvantage, which can be mitigated if they are able to stay on track with their education.)

Another important way to support children who have experienced trauma or learning difficulties stay engaged with education is to create opportunities for them to build their social and emotional literacy. By building their knowledge about their feelings, body signals and thoughts, they will increase their capacity to understand, reflect on and share their experiences with trusted people.

By helping children to strengthen their social and emotional literacy skills, you also enable them to express hidden feelings, connect with others and build a greater awareness of what it feels like to be safe and unsafe. This increased self-awareness is the first step to seeking help and managing emotions in constructive and empowering ways.

 

Useful resources

Tell A Trusted Adult

Body Signals

The Bears stickers

Stones…have feelings too!

The Koala Therapy Ball

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