Area Health Education CenterWSU Extension
Complex Trauma
Impacts of Chronic Stress on Children & Their Capacity to Succeed
For more than 10 years, AHEC has worked to understand the cumulative impacts of multiple forms of family and community violence on the developmental capacities and successes of children, including the neurobiological impacts of exposure to complex trauma.

A major focus of our work is on factors that can reduce negative developmental outcomes and that can support resiliency. Much of this work has been accomplished through research, program evaluation, and developmental activities as part of federal- and state-funded projects.

This work identifies need for a clear focus on those systems with universal access and responsibility to children and their families (such as early learning, public K-12 education, and health care). These systems are in need of strategic approaches to prevention and early intervention based on public health principles. Emphasis is placed on the public health approach, since less than 12% of children who experience chronic trauma ever receive a formal service.

AHEC regards chronic traumatic stress on children as a significant public health issue and seeks partnerships and development relationships with other groups and entities that share similar concerns.

What is Complex Trauma?
Complex trauma is the unpredictable and chronic exposure to a cluster of events, most often within a child’s care-giving system, that is intended to be a child’s primary source of safety and stability.

A child’s exposure to harmful experiences directly correlates with reduced ability to focus and learn in school, as well as with increased rates of crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and abusive relationships.

There are multiple trauma types:
  • Intimate – physical or sexual abuse, neglect, family violence
  • Societal – war, community violence, racism and bigotry
  • Unintended injuries, illness, loss of loved ones
  • Prolonged and often chronic exposure to stress or trauma which may also include substance abuse, mental illness, child maltreatment, homelessness, poverty, and more

Complex trauma has been identified as a principle threat to the social/emotional competency and learning success of children. This awareness provides an unifying conceptual framework for supporting developmental (health, academic and social/emotional) goals for all children through phased efforts towards early identification and remediation of trauma’s effects.

Since 2008, AHEC faculty have delivered complex trauma training to more than 8,000 professionals including those in the K-12 education system, early learning, juvenile justice, social work, mental health, primary health care, and community members in Washington, Oregon, and California. AHEC is committed to equipping people in universal systems with awareness of complex trauma as a major health issue and with the skills to proactively respond.

“I know what’s wrong with our system.  I’ve been a teacher for 26 years and have had lots of training … throughout all of that, I have been taught how to teach—[but] I have not been taught how children learn.”
- Middle school teacher with 26 years experience.

Spokane County Community Network
AHEC is privileged to serve in a coordination and consultation role with the Spokane County Community Network (SCCN).  This Community Network serves Spokane under the auspices of the state Family Policy Council and works to create community capacity through resource leveraging efforts, which is what makes it unique.  Its primary goals are the mitigation and reduction of high cost behaviors identified by the Department of Health, including school drop-out, family violence, child abuse, juvenile offenses, teen suicide, youth substance abuse, and teen parentage.

AHEC and SCCN have joined efforts to address the issues of complex trauma and adverse childhood experiences through the adoption of public health methods in work with early learning, public education, and health care workers and clients.

Drawing information from four research studies addressing adversity and trauma, AHEC researchers share early lessons and findings documenting trauma effects in K-12 education, early learning, and home visiting populations. Click here to read.




News Release:
In support of planning activities for mitigation efforts addressing adverse childhood experiences in Washington State, AHEC prepared a review of common community programs aligned with public health practices. Click here for the full PDF text.


Drawing information from four research studies addressing adversity and trauma, AHEC researchers share early lessons and findings documenting trauma effects in K-12 education, early learning, and home visiting populations. Click here for the full PDF text.


"Seeking Alternatives"

Resource Links:

CTTN Web 1.0

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study  

Readings in Complex Trauma

For More Information Contact:
Natalie Turner, MS, LMHC


Area Health Education Center, P.O. Box 1495, Spokane, WA 99210-1495, 509-358-7640, Contact Us