Did you know it was only in the past 30 years that brain scientists started to link traumatic experiences with maladaptive behaviors in children? That's right, only recently was the connection made between the trauma children experience and its negative consequences. The scientific and mental health care communities held that children were resilient and would bounce back from adverse experiences. The seminal work of Anda et al. (2006) and work by Dr. Bruce Perry (among so many others) showed a stark contrast to what was previously thought. Instead of being resilient and bouncing back, evidence started to pile up that the impacts of childhood trauma follow people well into adulthood. Not only are trauma-affected youth more likely to struggle with concentration, planning, emotional regulation, and relationships, but they are also more likely to have health problems throughout their lives. Why is that? Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. did a ton of work looking at how trauma impacts the brain. The answer to the question of how does trauma have such a significant and lasting impact on children is that it quite literally interrupts normal brain development. Curious to know how and also why it matters, keep reading!
The Shape of the Brain
Dr. Perry would have us think of the brain as an upside down triangle with the more basic and primitive functions at the base (see the image below from Dr. Perry's organization childtrauma.org). These include our brainstem, the diencephalon, and the limbic system. This region is responsible for responding to threats...think of it as the survival brain. It regulates heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and, as you move higher up from the brainstem and into the limbic system, emotional responses. The brainstem and diencephalon develop first in humans. We share this part of our brains with primitive animals like lizards and birds. The brainstem and diencephalon are cued to react when we are threatened and increase our heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. They also reroute oxygen-rich blood away from the brain and into the body to prep for physical defense. That leaves us literally dumber because we have less oxygen in our brains to think.
Higher levels of the brain develop later in life and are more complex. In addition, we share the higher levels of our brain like the cortex with more sophisticated animals such as mammals. The most human part of our brains and the most complex is the frontal lobe, which develops last (human brains don't mature until we are in our mid-twenties!)
Even though the simplest parts of the brain, or the bottom of the triangle, are responsible for basic functions and the more complex parts of are brain are responsible for higher order functions (like planning, organization, abstract thought, and creativity), all of the regions may be connected through neural pathways. One example of this would be having a sensory memory whenever we smell chocolate chip cookies baking. We might tell the story of the memory of our mom's freshly baked cookies using our frontal lobe, have a sensory sensation of the memory stemming from our midbrain, and have a physical reaction (maybe we salivate or feel relaxed) to the memory from our lower brain. All because a neural pathway was created from this memory that travels across the brain.
Why Does This Matter to Educators?
Here's an example to convey why the structures of the brain and the patterns of development matter for educators of trauma-affected youth. As hard and painful as it is, think of a three year old who lives in an impoverished home surrounded by drug abuse and violence. It is likely that the child, who should be developing appropriate social skills, language usage, and self-regulation, often feels unsafe, and must fend for herself. At this crucial stage in life, when her mother or father should be modeling boundaries, consistency, predictability, social skills development, and so much more, her brainstem and diencephalon are in overdrive. Instead of learning to self-regulate and spending time learning the alphabet and numbers, the pathways in her brain responsible for reacting to threat are hyper aroused. Over time, this child's resting heart rate may get stuck on high, she may become overly sensitive to stimuli, and her language, social, and overall cognitive (and even physical) development will probably suffer.
Another way this might look is that children who have so little control may do something called dissociate...basically, they shut down (think of a child laying under a table in the fetal position, completely unresponsive in fear). Dissociating allows the brain to leave the situation and actually releases natural painkillers. Dissociating is also something trauma-affected children might do in the classroom when their overdeveloped survival mechanisms are triggered.
As educators, we must understand how trauma can wire the brain in maladaptive ways. Much of the behaviors and academic difficulties that trauma-affected youth experience are a result of being stuck in survival mode.
So, what can you do about it? In a televised interview, Dr. Perry and the interviewer talked about the song "All You Need is Love" by the Beatles. As simple as that sounds, it is so true, all you need is love to overcome most trauma. Dr. Perry talks and writes about how the adverse experiences in our lives may be countered by healthy and supportive relationships. So, when working with trauma-affected youth, your best tool is to develop a strong, caring relationship. Not sure how to do that? Check out this blog post for some simple advice for fostering relationships with students.
The brain develops from the bottom up. In the earliest years of our lives, systems that regulate our body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure are sensitively developing. With the support of nurturing parents, children will likely grow the ability to regulate their emotions, behavior, and focus on academics. Children who grow up in adverse situations may not develop those parts of their brain fully. Their brains get wired to be hyper aroused or to dissociate. Start asking "what happened to you" rather than "what's wrong with you" and be the person students feel they can trust.
Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Bremner, J. D., Walker, J. D., Whitfield, C. H., Perry, B. D., Dube, S. R., & Giles, W. H. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood: A convergence of evidence from neurobiology and epidemiology. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 256(3), 174-186.
Check out the Video that Inspired this Post!
My name is Erin E. Silcox. I'm working on my Ph.D. in Literacy Education, focusing on the intersection of trauma and literacy. I want to deepen our base of knowledge about trauma-informed practices in schools and help teachers apply findings right now.