Erica Saunders is the School Counselor and Wellness Committee Director at City High School, one of three schools operated by CITY Center for Collaborative Learning. Erica is an expert on trauma informed practice and leads professional learning opportunities for educators inside and outside of CITY Center for Collaborative Learning.
The developing brain is primed for positive influences, yet is also especially vulnerable to harm. Throughout childhood, synapse connections are forming to create the foundation for all future brain development. Nurturing touch and a feeling of safety creates a healthy base wherein a child thrives in relationships and learning. Living in a state of stress and heightened awareness for physical and psychological safety challenges this healthy growth.
We learn resilience to stress by effectively dealing with elevated exposure over time. As described by Dr. Bruce Perry in The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog (2017) “If moderate, predictable and patterned, it is stress that makes a system stronger and more functionally capable or resilient” (p.40). On the other hand, stress that challenges our physical or psychological well-being, especially at an early stage of development, can overwhelm our coping abilities and sensitize the brain. According to Dr. Perry, “When the brain becomes sensitized to stress, even small stressors can provoke large responses” (p. 38).
Children who have experienced trauma may behave differently than those who have not, and it may become especially apparent when they get to school. Difficulty staying focused, aggressive outbursts and dissociation are all presentations of early brain complexities associated with childhood trauma. These behaviors can be misunderstood and misdiagnosed. The presence of a caring adult in these children’s lives is especially important in creating interpersonal connections and in turn re-establishing healthy synapse connections. The brain’s growth during childhood and adolescence is an opportune time for healing.
Teachers have a profound opportunity to intervene and introduce a caring, compassionate, predictable environment for optimal learning. Decreased stress levels allow children to maximize their neurodevelopmental processes, taking in new information to the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain known for abstract thought and higher learning. Calm children are able to focus on the words of the teacher and process new information.
The child in a state of stress lives in the subcortical and limbic areas of the brain, constantly assessing their environment for threat. This part of the brain focuses on the non-verbal behaviors of those around them, assessing for any perception of danger. Even ordinary experiences can raise stress hormones in a sensitized brain, and keep that child in a heightened state of arousal. If this is the case, this child is not able to focus on the words of the teacher and is not taking in new information.
Predictable routines, reference points (like the day’s agenda on the board), calm transitions and the absence of loud noises are a few easy considerations to apply to a traumatized child’s environment. As well, breathing practices are widely touted for the power they have over the parasympathetic nervous system. Beginning class with mindfulness strategies or breathwork can induce feelings of rest and relaxation in students, and prime their brains to learn. If stress levels can be kept at bay, these children are better able to access their working memory, cognitive flexibility and self-control, all necessary components of a child’s success in school.
Understanding the physiological complexities of childhood trauma and expanding one’s knowledge of classroom management tools to help children feel safe, is a newly realized necessity for teachers. Along with all other classroom responsibilities, this can feel overwhelming. Taking care of yourself and creating a support system of shared ideals and ideas, is paramount. Increased understanding of the developmental impact of childhood trauma is creating a growing network of invested educators. Trainings provide an opportunity for people to come together for support, to further knowledge and understanding, as well as gain additional tools to support learning in the classroom.
City Center for Collaborative Learning has developed trainings in Trauma Informed Practice that support caregivers in understanding how trauma affects how children learn and what adults can do to help children heal. Sign up for the Professional Learning Program Newsletter to receive up to date information on current training opportunities.