The Impact of Trauma on Education

education

Traumatic experiences in childhood can hinder a child’s ability to perform well in school. Neurobiological research has found that trauma impacts brain areas associated with cognition, memory, and learning.[1] Trauma jeopardises our brain health, which translates to academic difficulty and problems with school children’s behaviour and relationships.

According to the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, over 60 per cent of children involved in the survey had experienced some trauma in the previous year, while others had experienced multiple traumatic events.[2] Children and adolescents cannot often articulate their internal struggle, making it hard for educators to understand their academic issues. Teachers and parents of child trauma survivors may notice any of the following trauma symptoms in affected children[3]:

  • Re-experiencing of the event – nightmares, feelings of panic, aggression, emotional shutdown, intrusive thoughts
  • Avoidance – avoiding engagement, not making eye contact, reluctance to talk or think about the trauma
  • Negative mood and cognition – blaming others, low self-worth, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, poor memory
  • Arousal – hypervigilance, being on edge, constant worry

 

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Traumatic events that occur in childhood and have a lasting impact on the person affected are known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)[4]. In 1995, CDC-Kaiser Permanente led a study on ACEs, which revealed that ACEs were far more prevalent than previously understood and have significant outcomes on our health and well-being both in childhood and adulthood.[5]

One reason why ACEs have such a negative impact on our health is their association with toxic stress. The brain and body are designed to deal with stress in short bursts. Trauma can result in prolonged activation of our stress response system, which ultimately wears away at our physical and mental health.[6] Toxic stress in childhood can jeopardise normal brain development. As such, trauma impacts education due to the structural changes that it creates in the brain and the subsequent issues it causes regarding executive function, emotional regulation, and behavioural health.

 

The Impact of Trauma on Academic Performance

Reading and writing skills, participation in debate and discussion, and solving mathematical problems are all key elements of education. The development of each of these skills relies on the brain’s ability to organise, comprehend, remember, learn, trust, and produce work.

Emotional self-regulation, attention, and positive behaviour are also key elements of education. The ability to regulate one’s emotions, sustain attention, and organise one’s behaviour adaptively set the stage for healthy brain development and personal growth through education.

Trauma has a significant, lasting impact on the brain, especially when it occurs in childhood. Childhood trauma results in toxic stress, which wears away at our physical and mental health. Child trauma survivors are at risk of hindered brain development, which hurts their ability to engage in a formal learning setting and achieve academic success.

According to neuroscientific researchers, trauma can impact a child’s academic health in a myriad of ways, including[7]:

  • Hindered development of brain areas associated with language and communication
  • Jeopardised sense of self
  • Compromised ability to pay attention in class
  • Reduced memory – difficulty following instructions
  • Poor organisation skills
  • Difficulty grasping ’cause and effect’ relationships

All of the above are essential for effective information processing. Traumatic stress can also hinder a child’s capacity for creative play. While all of the above are important for academic development, play is perhaps the most important tool children use to grow and develop.[8]

 

The Impact of Trauma on Classroom Behaviour

Traumatic experiences in childhood can influence our behaviour. For many child trauma survivors, the school setting can feel like a battleground. Trauma can make us feel that the world is inherently unsafe. As a result of overwhelm, perhaps through physical or sexual abuse, parental neglect, exposure to violence, or any other types of trauma, survivors are often on high alert, on the lookout for the next threat.

This hyperalertness for danger makes it hard for child trauma survivors to regulate their classroom behaviour. The classroom’s noise and chaos can trigger defensive coping mechanisms employed to help a child remain calm and feel somewhat safe.

Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms are often experienced as frustrating and disruptive by teachers and other school authorities. Teachers’ responses to the coping mechanisms can ultimately strengthen the child’s perception that school is unsafe and may reinforce a negative self-image that could be traced back to the original trauma.

The effects of childhood trauma on classroom behaviour stem from the same place that creates the academic difficulties associated with childhood trauma – an inability to perceive and process social cues and difficulty understanding and sharing one’s feelings in an adaptive, appropriate way.

Children who have experienced trauma may externalise their experience by acting out with loud and aggressive behaviour. Alternatively, they may internalise by withdrawing from others, becoming emotionally numb, or becoming depressed. However a child responds to the trauma they have experienced, the result is often lost learning opportunities and strained relationships.

 

The Impact of Trauma on Childhood Relationships

Traumatic stress creates a deep internal struggle in those affected. Children who have experienced trauma face feelings of low self-worth, distrust, and insecurity in relationships with adults.[9] This is true both inside and outside a school setting.

Trauma preoccupies us with the need for survival. Child trauma survivors are likely to be distrustful of adults based on their traumatic memories. This compromises their ability to engage in the classroom effectively.

Trauma also hinders our social development, which means that many traumatised children may not have developed the same level of social skills as their peers, causing strain in their relationships with their teachers and peers.

 

The Impact of Trauma on Adult Education

While children who have experienced trauma may struggle in school, adult learners may also struggle with education due to trauma.[10] When we have been traumatised in childhood, and that trauma remains unresolved, the symptoms persist into adulthood.

Adverse childhood experiences have impacted approximately 1 in 3 adult learners.[11] In a classroom setting, adult trauma survivors might easily become frustrated and subject to experiencing their traumatic memories. The classroom can bring up memories of looming authority and hyperalertness from childhood, leading the adult back into a trauma response and making it difficult to engage in learning effectively.

 

Trauma-Informed Education

Although trauma can have a lasting impact on our education, significant strides have been made to help trauma survivors overcome their academic challenges and get the best education possible. Many trauma survivors have managed to overcome the obstacles to education put in place by their past trauma.

 

Social and Emotional Learning for Trauma-impacted Learners

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)[12] is an approach to education that supports students in acquiring and applying the skills, knowledge, and outlook necessary to regulate their emotions, set and strive towards positive goals, relate to others with empathy, create and maintain positive relationships, and make informed, responsible decisions. SEL programs can help trauma-impacted children and adults achieve an education while also developing their social and emotional competence.

 

 If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

 

[1] Bremner, J Douglas. “Traumatic stress: effects on the brain.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 8,4 (2006): 445-61. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/jbremner

[2] 2014. National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NATSCEV I), Final Report. [ebook] Available at: <https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/grants/248444.pdf> [Accessed 29 March 2021].

[3] Kaminer, Debra et al. “Post-traumatic stress disorder in children.” World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) vol. 4,2 (2005): 121-5.

[4] Herzog, Julia I, and Christian Schmahl. “Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Consequences on Neurobiological, Psychosocial, and Somatic Conditions Across the Lifespan.” Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 9 420. 4 Sep. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00420

[5] Herzog, Julia I, and Christian Schmahl. “Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Consequences on Neurobiological, Psychosocial, and Somatic Conditions Across the Lifespan.” Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 9 420. 4 Sep. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00420

[6] Bremner, J Douglas. “Traumatic stress: effects on the brain.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 8,4 (2006): 445-61. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/jbremner

[7] Trauma Sensitive Schools. n.d. The Problem: Impact – Trauma Sensitive Schools. [online] Available at: <https://traumasensitiveschools.org/trauma-and-learning/the-problem-impact/#:~:text=Traumatic%20experiences%20can%20impact%20learning,need%20to%20succeed%20in%20school> [Accessed 29 March 2021].

[8] Wang, Sam, and Sandra Aamodt. “Play, stress, and the learning brain.” Cerebrum : the Dana forum on brain science vol. 2012 (2012): 12.

[9] Lee, Adabel, and Benjamin L Hankin. “Insecure attachment, dysfunctional attitudes, and low self-esteem predicting prospective symptoms of depression and anxiety during adolescence.” Journal of clinical child and adolescent psychology : the official journal for the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, American Psychological Association, Division 53 vol. 38,2 (2009): 219-31. doi:10.1080/15374410802698396

[10] Perry, B., 2006. Fear and learning: Trauma-related factors in the adult education process. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2006(110), pp.21-27.

[11] Perry, B., 2006. Fear and learning: Trauma-related factors in the adult education process. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2006(110), pp.21-27.

[12] Lawson, Gwendolyn M et al. “The Core Components of Evidence-Based Social Emotional Learning Programs.” Prevention science : the official journal of the Society for Prevention Research vol. 20,4 (2019): 457-467. doi:10.1007/s11121-018-0953-y

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