Adverse childhood experiences and childhood trauma can have a potentially overwhelming negative effect upon a child’s ability to learn. However, far too many schools and educators still do not understand the role of trauma in a child’s life, its effects on learning and child development, and how educators can more effectively interact and respond to children impacted by trauma.

The most important step is to gain an understanding of trauma, who it affects, and how it influences a student’s ability to learn.

Trauma: What happens?

Trauma is any experience so overwhelming and threatening that it overwhelms the child’s ability to cope. Normal dual brain function (right and left hemispheres cooperating to process information) is interrupted by chemicals and hormones released during the fight-flight-freeze response. Different hormones are released during the fight/flight than the freeze, and all the chemicals are are important; however,  the traumatic experience is processed by only the verbal side of the brain. The memory becomes “stuck” and cannot be fully processed with a beginning, middle, and end because time and sequence are functions of the disabled verbal part of the brain.

What causes trauma? A wide range of experiences can produce emotional or psychological trauma for a child: invasive medical procedures, accidents, abandonments or neglect, witnessing violence, abuse, the death of a loved one, adoption, and other events. Trauma is a subjective experience and will depend upon age, stage of development, personality, intelligence and prior history of trauma. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) defines traumatic events as those in which an individual experiences, witnesses, or is confronted with actual or threatened death or serious injury, or threatened physical integrity of self or others.

Who experiences trauma? Anyone. Children from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds are at risk. Research by Dr. Vincent Felitti indicates that between half to two-thirds of school-aged children experience at least one trauma. Children in urban areas are exposed to higher rates of trauma. As the number of adverse childhood experiences rises, the child’s risk for PTSD rises.

How does trauma impact learning?

The brain is continually developing throughout infancy, childhood, and adolescence. In the early years when the brain is most “plastic,” traumatic experiences such as abandonment, neglect, abuse, and exposure to violence profoundly influence and limit brain development and learning ability.

Experiencing trauma can change the function of a child’s brain by activating stress responses. Chemicals are released in the brain during the fight-flight-freeze response to trauma, which creates an over reactive stress system. Over exposure to toxic stress can lead to functional reduction in several areas of the brain.

What can educators do?

  • Become trauma-informed. Learn about trauma and be sensitive to its impact on children and learning. Click HERE for information about our FREE Trauma Effective Professionals (TEP) for Educators course.
  • Screen students routinely for trauma exposure and symptoms using appropriate evidence-based tools.
  • Learn about trauma triggers and grounding techniques.
  • Avoid stigmatizing and punishing students.
  • Build a school structure that teaches and supports trauma-sensitive approaches through strategic planning, training, reviewing and enforcing policies, developing community partnerships, and implementing regular evaluation.
  • Build staff skills that provide students safety, teach emotional management, self-control, and conflict resolution.

We offer FREE training through our Trauma Effective Professionals for Educators (TEP) course.