Professors of Early Childhood Education Karen O'Neill (left) and Julie Tzipori

Professors of Early Childhood Education Karen O'Neill and Julie Tzipori attended  the “Trauma and Resilience in Higher Education Conference” in April of 2023 and presented their findings at last month's Lunch and Learn. The conference, which was hosted by MassBay Community College and the Institute for Trauma, Adversity and Resilience in Higher Education, covered existing and new research on trauma and learning, as well as strategies that can be applied in QCC's classrooms.

Tzipori highlighted the conference's emphasis on the long-term effects of early childhood trauma on brain development. This can explain some of the challenges students face in the classroom. Trauma, as defined by Statman-Well (2020), is a response to an event, series of events, or circumstances experienced as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening. Examples include child abuse, domestic violence and experiences of military veterans.

"It's possible that this is why we are seeing some of the extensions of trauma in our classrooms. Students are coming here with experiences that may have changed the brain structures that enable them to fully participate the way we like to see them participate," said Tzipori.

O'Neill added the concept of continuous traumatic stress, which encompasses ongoing experiences like racism, poverty, marginalization and microaggressions. She also addressed the impact of secondary stress on educators, human service professionals and public safety officers who experience compassion fatigue or burnout from repeated exposure to traumatic stories.

The presentation stressed that there is a paradigm shift in education that has influenced educators and staff to move from the question of "what's wrong with you" to "what happened to you" and even further, "who is there for you?" O'Neill and Tzipori emphasized that through understanding trauma and implementing new trauma-informed strategies, faculty and staff can improve students ability to learn.

One concept that they brought back from the conference was Bruce Perry's model of engagement which is a neuro-sequential process that starts with regulation, leading to relation and finally reasoning. As O'Neill described it, for the brain to be active in learning, it has to be "open." When a student has experienced trauma, they can become disregulated from a stimulus such as a microaggression, a sound or a certain topic in a class, and the brain shuts down to taking in and processing new information.

Perry's model highlights the need for tactics to help students regulate their nervous system. Grounding activities like a breathing exercise or a yoga technique can help start a class and a sensory experience, such as eating a piece of sour candy or playing with a fidget toy, can help a student who is feeling disregulated.

"Learning is state dependent. We have to put the time in here and help with regulation," said O'Neill.

The relating part of the process is building a connection with students, something that most teachers do already. It's important to create a safe and trusting environment so students can feel comfortable answering questions and analyzing concepts.

Tzipori noted that some students show physical signs of being triggered into a disregulated state, such as clenched fists, but other signs might be behavioral such as multiple absences or a decline in performance. It is in these moments that the relationship a faculty or staff member has created with a student is important, because it is a critical time to check in and potentially offer resources. One professor at the presentation suggested keeping a spreadsheet of available resources and timelines for checking in with students.

In the Early Childhood Education department, faculty and staff have been working on the balance between keeping high standards for students and utilizing more equitable policies, such as leniency on late assignments if students have communicated valid reasons. 

"As higher education faculty and staff, we have the ability to impact and make change," said Tzipori.

To continue this vital work, O'Neill and Tzipori will be co-teaching a new class in Fall 2024, SOS 260 Introduction to Trauma Informed Care in Community Settings.

For more information reach out to Karen O'Neill at or Julie Tzipori at