The human brain is deeply dynamic; the architecture and genetic expression of each child’s brain grows and changes in response to that child’s context, experiences, relationships, and environment. From birth to early adulthood, the brain is also very malleable. New consensus around the science of brain development is providing us with critical insights we can use to optimize student learning and development.
We know that trauma – and exposure to adverse experiences and toxic stress, which we will discuss more in successive blog posts – has a significant impact on a child’s cognitive, mental, emotional and developmental health, and ultimately, on a child’s’ success in school. The intrinsic malleability of the human brain, however, makes it possible for children, when in environments conducive for their success, to overcome come adverse experiences and excel.
Both science and fairness support the proposition that every child deserves instructional practices and learning environments that:
Are academically rigorous and rich, addressing the unique learning and developmental needs and strengths of each child;
Integrate academic, cognitive, social, emotional, identity, and health components;
Foster deep, positive, empathetic relationships that are culturally responsive and promote each student’s physical and emotional safety;
Engage integrated, comprehensive supports to meet individual student needs and address the effects of adversity, including poverty and racism; and
Include the intentional development of critical skills, mindsets, and habits.
Equipped with this understanding, we have an unparalleled opportunity to transform education and meet the needs of each and every child.
In this, our first entry in a blog series on the intersection of whole child education with brain development and trauma-informed practices, we begin an examination of how the science of learning and development can and should inform the ways in which we educate and support our children.
Over the coming weeks, we will draw from the expertise of our partners in research and practice to discuss the urgent need. – and scientific basis – for trauma-informed care in schools; examine in-school sources of trauma and how the provision of trauma-informed care in schools is necessary for student health and academic success; explore the meaning of “safe spaces”; highlight promising practices from across the country; and probe the relationship between trauma-informed practices and school safety.
In my time teaching at an elementary school in Oakland, CA, I had the pleasure of meeting and engaging with many students who were all very capable and brilliant in their own right. They challenged me everyday to show up for them, not only as an educator, but as an ally. One of my most memorable experiences was when I assigned my fourth graders into small groups. I was met with immediate resistance. One student insisted that he could not work with his partner because his partner “always had his head down” and would not be productive. The tension between the two students was palpable; the situation was stressful.
After talking with both students, I found that the boy who always had his head down had neither eaten breakfast that morning nor dinner the night before. He was not shutting down in class because he was disengaged, disruptive or a “bad student.” He was fully capable of doing the work: he had trouble staying awake because he was hungry.
Daily life for many children living in poverty includes stressors like hunger and food insecurity. These hardships not only increase students’ levels of stress and negatively affect their studies and social relationships, but they are in many cases fundamentally traumatic experiences.
What is Trauma?
For years, the term “trauma” referred to the negative feelings and behaviors that people exhibit after experiencing deeply disturbing events such as physical or sexual abuse, violence, exposure to death, and/or military or war-related experiences. As our understanding of the development of the human brain has advanced, the meaning of the term has broadened to include a wider variety of experiences – psychological, domestic, historic, and race-based – that frequently occur at home, in the community, and in schools. Rather than experiences that are sad, or merely unfortunate, traumatic events are those that can surpass a child’s ordinary coping skills and leave thar child temporarily helpless. According to the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than two thirds of children in the United States have reported having experienced at least 1 traumatic incident by age 16.
What are the Impacts of Trauma?
Traumatic experiences may occur once or several times in a child’s lifetime, but too often and for too many, trauma is chronic. For this reason, childhood trauma is one of our most critical public health concerns. Across the nation, children are going to school while carrying the weight of traumatic experiences, burdens that hold them back in the classroom.
The classroom impacts of these experiences vary by age, environment, personality, genetic makeup, and physiology. Certain areas of a child’s brain, such as the hippocampus, which governs functions such as learning and memory, are fast-tracked for development in early childhood; the development of the prefrontal cortex, which governs thoughts and attention, spikes during adolescence. Because the development of children’s’ brains – and their intellectual, emotional, and social abilities – is individual and jagged, the experience of trauma at various points in a child’s development can have significant and varied impacts.
Children experiencing trauma typically use “survival coping” responses. In short, when exposed to a stressor, the body responds through a “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” response. These responses activate several systems in the body and release stress hormones to help the child adjust to their environment. While the specific manifestation of these responses may be somewhat different for each child, examples may include: avoiding a route home where gun violence is likely to occur; avoiding school for a prolonged amount of time because the child associates school with gun violence.
Recent research indicates that exposure to trauma during childhood can result in sensory processing difficulties that can contribute to problems with writing and reading. A single traumatic event can have significant, and simultaneous, impacts on various aspects of a child’s health and identity, including negative impacts on a child’s ability to pay attention and process new information, interpret their own emotional state and that of others, respond to social cues, understand the emotional states of others, and develop strong relationships with classmates and teachers. Children impacted by trauma are more likely to have irregular attendance or be absent from school, have a lower grade point average, be retained a grade, and be placed in special education classes in spite of their academic ability.
Exposure to multiple and/or recurrent traumas can have a cumulative impact that disrupts the normal functioning of body and brain stress-response systems, leading to over-reactive systems that make survival coping responses dangerous to – rather than protective of – a child’s brain. This can have significant negative short-term and long-term impacts on a child’s emotional and cognitive functioning. The effects of this cumulative impact are especially strong in communities with higher rates of physical and emotional violence and victimization. If continued for a long period, these responses can, for example, result in attentional deficits, learning disabilities, an unwillingness to participate in class, a child losing contact with peers, and falling behind in school.
Children in these circumstances are living in a “constant state of emergency,” with very real and negative implications for their brain development, social functioning, learning and behavior.
A Path Forward
That all students deserve to be taught to a high standard is uncontroversial. We know that students fulfill their highest potential when they are supported cognitively, socially, and emotionally, and that education designed with each of these needs in mind can accelerate student learning and skill development. The data we have on the academic performance of various student groups has made it only more clear that a wide variety of external elements factor into students’ well-being and “success.” We have learned that when schools design learning experiences around a mythical average, or try to force all children to fit one pathway, they miss the opportunity to nurture the individual potential of every child. There is no one best pathway to learning and development, but multiple possible pathways.
We can unlock the great potential of each and every child by matching supports with opportunities in ways that are developmentally appropriate and that also keep pathways open to new and emerging talents. School administrators, teachers, and staff, by recognizing, understanding, and effectively caring for students who are surviving traumatic experiences, can reduce the negative impact of stress-related behaviors, support critical learning, and create a positive school environment more conducive to student success.
In the next blog in this series, we will look at in-school sources of trauma and examine how the provision of trauma-informed care in schools is necessary for student health and academic success.