CASA Conversations

Trauma and Child Brain Development

On Wednesday, May 23, Passaic County CASA welcomed Tracey Heisler, Executive Director of CASA SHaW (Somerset, Hunterdon, and Warren counties). Ms. Heisler led a workshop on “The Impacts of Trauma on Children’s Brain Development” for an audience of CASA volunteers and staff, including a screening of the film “Paper Tigers” (


Ms. Heisler’s presentation was developed in collaboration with Dr. Melissa Sadin, an expert on children who have experienced developmental trauma. As opposed to exposure to a singular traumatic event such as a natural disaster, developmental trauma can be traced back to abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction, which have impacted nearly every child in foster care. The goal for the workshop was to help CASA volunteers understand and respond appropriately to the traumatized children they serve. Thanks to new research and growing awareness, there is a movement to recognize and provide “trauma-sensitive” care in schools and other environments serving children.  

When a child is exposed to a traumatic situation, they often experience a “fight or flight” response. The part of their brain responsible for this response is the amygdala. Over time, if this part of their brain is continually over-activated, it can actually change the physiological structure of the brain. MRI scans of the brains of both healthy children and abused children show remarkable differences in amygdala activity. The amygdala becomes overactive and can begin to dictate behavior over other parts of the brain, leading to oppositional, violent, hyperactive, attention-seeking, and/or “checked-out” behavior.

To help these children, caring adults can help recognize these symptoms for what they are. They can also take steps to avoid exacerbating a child’s prior traumas by providing predictable, safe spaces and helping them cope with their emotional responses when they occur. Over time, traumatized children can learn to trust again, but it takes the reliable and consistent presence of people who care and acknowledge a child’s real pain. The trauma they experienced may have happened in the past, but the repercussions can last a lifetime, and play out repeatedly over generations.

One of the most fascinating connections that researchers are discovering is the connection between trauma exposure and health. Using a checklist of “Adverse Childhood Experiences” or ACEs, the more traumatic experiences someone has been exposed to, the higher their likelihood of developing cancer, depression, alcoholism, drug additions, anxiety, and other adverse health conditions.

To observe the impact that a trauma-sensitive approach can make, workshop attendees also watched “Paper Tigers,” a film about an alternative high school in eastern Washington State. The film follows five students and makes a compelling argument that positive, sympathetic adult figures can have a transformative impact on traumatized children and adolescents.

More information and helpful resources on child trauma can be found on Dr. Melissa Sadin’s website: