Trauma Affects a Developing Brain. Knowing That Can Make All the Difference for You and Your Students
December 6, 2019
December 6, 2019
By Tom Allen
Midway through her keynote presentation at VEA’s Instruction and Professional Development Conference in October, Dr. Lori Desautels gave the crowd a chance to see how neuroplasticity works.
“Hold up your hands,” she said, “and make the peace sign with one hand and the OK sign with the other.”
When the over 200 educators complied, she smiled and told them, “Now, as quickly as you can, change the peace sign to an OK sign while changing the OK sign to a peace sign and keep doing it. Go!”
Laughter and surprise-filled the room as participants learned how difficult the task she’d given them really was, though it sounded simple. “You’re struggling,” Desautels said, “and you should be. This is something you haven’t done before, so you don’t have the brain circuitry for it. Your brain has to develop it over time, with experience.”
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form and reorganize connections and pathways in response to experience, and Desautels wants educators to know that it’s an important part of understanding why young people with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) behave the way they do in school. Trauma can create a fundamental reorganization in a child’s developing brain.
“If you haven’t been raised in an environment with much kindness,” she says, “your brain hasn’t been able to develop the structure for it. The same goes for empathy, trust, and many, many other qualities. Trauma is also actually physiological, too—we hold it in our bodies.” When chronically stressed, our bodies can secrete excess amounts of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can damage parts of the brain responsible for learning and cognition.
ACEs can be anything from community or domestic violence, to abuse and neglect, to immigration status issues and separated families, to a very long list of scary things that happen to children. And, as more young people come to school dragging their ACEs with them, succeeding academically can become a huge challenge.
“If a child has had four or more ACEs,” says Desautels, “they have become 50 times more likely to have academic and behavioral issues than other children. But we can use what we now know. Today’s neurobiological research can inform educators’ practice more than ever before.”
Trauma shows up in students in a myriad of ways. They can be distracted, anxious, depressed, defiant, apathetic, even violent and aggressive. “A traumatized child lives in a ‘survival’ brain state, ready to run, fight, or shut down,” says Desautels. “If they’re trying to do school and life like that, they can’t even access the parts of their brain they need to use in order to make decisions, solve problems, and regulate their emotions. They’ve missed opportunities for brain development in areas of their brains that control attachment and regulating emotions. Achievement gaps may, in fact, be adversity gaps.”
Desautels offers a framework, built on these four foundations, for helping children and adolescents who’ve endured trauma:
Our own brain state. “This isn’t just about your profession,” says Desautels. “It’s about your life. A disregulated adult cannot regulate a child.” Educators must begin by taking a look at themselves and how they react to stressful situations, in and out of the classroom.
“If we teach kids to monitor their emotions by modeling it ourselves,” Desautels says, “they will mirror our behavior.”
Attachment. “If a child feels safe and ‘felt,’ they will learn,” says Desautels. But many children come to school insecurely attached, she points out, and mistrustful of adults. We must offer them touch points [more on those later] and routines that can help create the kind of relationships that promote healthy brain development.
“One emotionally healthy relationship with a caring adult can trump a lot of adversity,” Desautels says. “That’s the power of our social brains.”
When we make helping young people form positive relationships the goal of our interactions with them, even the most troubled can make amazing progress.
Regulation. Our brains change, both functionally and structurally, as a result of our life experiences, and an accumulation of ACEs can create actual brain inflammation. We must help students regulate the thoughts and emotions in their sometimes irregularly-wired brains, with the goal being a state of what Desautels calls “relaxed alertness.”
“Anxiety has become our new national learning disability,” she says. “For children who come from uncertainty, we need to amp up predictability. Their brains need routines and rituals.”
Well-known neuroscience researcher Bruce Perry has found that when childhood trauma is addressed effectively, the brain can heal and repair itself, leaving young people in a far better position to learn.
Teaching about neuroanatomy. “Give the science to your students,” Desautels advises, noting that some elementary schoolers she’s worked with get excited about pronouncing the word “amygdala,” a part of the brain in each hemisphere connected with experiencing emotions. Desautels has begun creating “Amygdala First-Aid Kits,” which she fills with sensory experiences and other activities that redirect the brain of a child who’s reached an alarmed state.
Touch points, says Desautels, are essentially ways to get the nervous system calm enough to access the frontal cortex, the brain’s center for learning and thought. They can be as simple as interactions with trusted individuals, people who know us and our strengths, challenges, and interests and are affirming of us. They can also be pre-planned activities and experiences.
Thinking of touch points specifically in relation to overcoming adversity and building resilience, many educators have begun having touch-point encounters with specific students throughout the school day. These intentional conversations are initiated by the adult and can be as brief as about 30 seconds or as long as five minutes—the key is to explore what’s going on with the student. When these kinds of encounters happen regularly, they can diminish the young person’s negative emotions, such as hopelessness or despair, especially if more than one adult is checking in with them.
“Notice if they have a new haircut, pair of shoes, or tattoo—even a smile or other facial expression,” says Desautels. “Tap into their interests. Ask them their feelings about something and listen to learn, not to respond. Even eye contact for a couple seconds can transfer positive emotions.”
While your words are important, what you don’t say during these touch points is at least equally important. “Kids in chronic stress watch the tone of your voice,” Desautels says. “That is huge. They’re also paying a lot of attention to your facial expressions, especially your eyes, your gestures, and your posture.”
Beyond intentional, caring conversation, touchpoints can also include a multitude of sensory interventions. “Movement, focusing on your breathing, visual imagery, rhythm, drumming, and art can all settle a child’s nervous system,” says Desautels. “So can things like taste, smell, and even heat and cold.”
Spread the word. Educators must be made aware of what we know about the impact of adversity and trauma and how ACEs affect the brains of young people. More professionals in schools must begin to accept that negative behaviors are often the result of stress responses and are connected to attachment and self-regulation challenges.
Target interventions. Kindergarten and first, sixth, and ninth grades are important transitional years where experts believe predictable and safe environments may be especially important. These are also good years to identify students with the greatest challenges. We probably know who they are, but it can be helpful to let other educators know something about what we’ve observed and why these students may be in need of extra attention.
Planning helps. While resiliency touch points shouldn’t be scripted, it often takes some planning to make the encounters feel casual and organic. If several educators at your school see a particular student daily, it’s helpful to work together on how to maintain regular approaches with the student and check in periodically to see how it’s going.
Gauge effectiveness. Are targeted students getting fewer office referrals? Are they absent less? Are they being suspended less or having fewer truancies? It’s also important to check on each other—emotions are contagious and regular exposure to students in trauma can be draining and leave adults susceptible to vicarious trauma.
“Knowing how the brain works can affect the way we communicate with students, the way we discipline, how we teach, and even the way we arrange the classroom,” says Desautels. “We can meet our young people where they are in brain development.
“They may behave like the kids you’d never name your own children after,” she says. “But they’re not bad kids—their brains are just this way.”