Helping Young Children Who Have Experienced Trauma: Policies and Strategies for Early Care and Education

Executive Summary 

Many young children are exposed to traumatic life events. 1,2 Almost half of children in the United States—approximately 35 million—have experienced one or more types of trauma,3 and young children are at especially high risk compared to older children. Over one quarter of all children with confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect are under age 3, and victimization is most common for children under 12 months old.4 Unintentional injuries, such as drowning, falls, burns, choking, and poisoning, also occur most frequently among children ages 5 years and younger.5 In addition, children who experience domestic violence are disproportionately young, with 60 percent under age 6 at the time of exposure.6 
Early childhood trauma occurs when a young child experiences an event that causes actual harm or poses a serious threat to the child’s emotional and physical well-being. These events range from experiencing abuse and neglect to having a parent with substance abuse issues or being separated from a parent.7 Trauma is different from regular life stressors because it causes a sense of intense fear, terror, and helplessness that is beyond the normal range for typical experiences.8 
Trauma has been shown to negatively impact early brain development, cognitive development, learning, social-emotional development, the ability to develop secure attachments to others, and physical health.9 However, each child’s reaction to trauma is unique and depends on the nature of the trauma, characteristics of the child and family, and the overall balance of risk and protective factors in the child’s life. While almost all children experience distress immediately after a traumatic event, most return to their typical functioning over time with supports from parents and other caregivers.10 Generally, trauma that begins early in life, takes multiple forms, is severe and pervasive, and involves harmful behavior by primary caregivers has been linked to the most serious symptoms of posttraumatic stress and negative child outcomes.11 
Despite trauma being widespread and detrimental to the well-being of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, few early care and education (ECE) programs and state systems are prepared to offer care that is trauma-informed—with all adults able to recognize and respond to the impact of trauma on young children, and to infuse trauma awareness, knowledge, and skills into program culture, practices, and policies. 
In this report, we describe early childhood trauma and its effects, offer promising strategies for ECE programs and systems to help young children who have experienced trauma, and present recommendations for state policymakers and other stakeholders looking to support trauma-informed ECE for this vulnerable group.
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