Like many teachers, I have often had sleepless nights trying to understand why the smallest comment could cause traumatized students to knock over chairs, attack peers, and scream unintelligibly. Often, these episodes were over in a couple of minutes, but the disruption left lasting marks on the student, their peers, and the learning environment. Unfortunately, incidents like these are becoming increasingly common; each year, teachers report multiple students capable of these explosive episodes. Developing trauma-sensitive schools is of growing importance to the impact on the climate and achievement of all students.
Education Builds Executive Functioning
Creating trauma-sensitive schools begins by understanding the brain and the role trauma can play in altering brain chemistry and development. Broadly speaking, executive functioning is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. These are the thinking processes that allow students to plan, focus, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Encompassing many of the noncognitive skills used to learn, work, and manage ourselves, these executive functioning skills filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set goals, and control impulses. Think of it like an air traffic control system at a busy airport that manages numerous arrivals and departures across multiple runways. This same area of the brain plays a central role in student behavior—executive functioning is responsible for managing emotions, interpreting social interactions, and self-control. When students cannot access these areas of the brain or this area is underdeveloped, students are more likely to struggle with paying attention, following directions, managing emotions, and other skills associated with self-control. As a result, students will be less able to manage frustration, start and complete tasks, follow multi-step directions, stay on track, self-monitor, or balance priorities.
In today’s technology-dependent world, these higher-order thinking skills are even more central to success. In particular, researchers and business leaders highlight the need for the 21st-century workforce to think critically, be creative, collaborate, adapt, take initiative, and get along with others. Considering the role executive functioning plays in learning, behavior, and achievement, it is understandable why so much of the school day is spent directly and indirectly developing this area of the brain. However, traumatic experiences can alter brain development and function, undermining the development of executive functioning.
Trauma Hijacks the Pathway to Executive Functioning
The first question teachers and administrators often ask traumatized students after an explosive episode is, “Why did you do that?” The well-intentioned goal of these conversations is to understand the rationale of the student and help them learn empathy, self-control, and problem-solving strategies—all skills that require executive functioning. However, the most common responses to this logical question seem to be more explosive behavior, lying, or blaming others. What rarely results from this line of questioning is a rational dialogue that leads the student to recognize their behavior, accept responsibility, and decide on an alternate course of action.
It turns out there is a good reason why these conversations are so challenging. When a person feels threatened, they are less able to access the executive functioning area of the brain. Instead, they are operating from the more primitive regions of the brain that focus on survival. When humans are being chased or fighting to survive, that’s not the time to stop and think, explore, ask questions, or wait patiently. In this fight-or-flight state, we respond impulsively to subtle cues because failure to react could result in pain or death. Our brains are built from the bottom up; accessing the higher-order executive functioning skills can only be done when the more primitive areas of the reptilian brain are not alerted. When it comes to neural connections, survival concerns overrule curiosity.
Traumatic events alter the functioning of our amygdala, which is the brain’s radar center for threats. This area of the brain scans input from our senses for threats. If a threat is perceived, the brain’s fight-or-flight response is triggered, mobilizing us for action. The amygdala focuses our attention on what it finds threatening—as a result, when something is perceived as a threat, our mind wanders over and over on that stimulus, even to the point of fixation. Traumatic events can reset the amygdala to a hair trigger, lowering the threshold for threat and hijacking the rest of the brain’s ability to respond to what it perceives as an emergency. As a result, trauma victims can be triggered by subtle cues that remind them of the traumatic experience, setting off a cascade of overreactions and undermining their ability to pay attention to instruction.
Often, traumatized students are not making rational decisions developed using executive functioning. Traumatic events rewire the brain, undermining many of our most basic assumptions about the world, creating a hypervigilant focus on self-protection that causes the brain to become stuck in fight-or-flight mode operating primarily from the reptilian brain. Additionally, repeated adverse experiences can create toxic stress, weakening the architecture of the developing brain and the development of executive functioning. Research has even shown that adverse events can shrink parts of the brain, producing lingering neural scars in the executive functioning areas of the brain. As a result, traumatized students are operating from emotions and a body filled with stress hormones that are driven by the reptilian brain and focused on survival; they are largely unable to access or develop their executive functioning skills.
The Pathway to Executive Functioning
Finding a way to help a class of students develop resilience and support each other while meeting the myriad of pacing calendars and school activities is a tall order for even the most skilled teachers. But, the research base around trauma and resilience has advanced, and a framework for creating trauma-sensitive schools is emerging. In particular, research consistently highlights three common components of resilience:
- Belonging: Developing supportive relationships with others, especially caring adults
- Agency: A sense of self-efficacy and control over one’s life
- Meaning: A greater understanding of life, a spiritual or religious connection, and a sense of purpose
Belonging and Trauma: Am I Safe?
Victims of trauma arrive at school with their brains focused on survival and detecting threats in the environment. As a result, they may struggle to learn to cross multiply fractions, ask thoughtful questions, be creative, wait, or manage frustrations. Additionally, students in this mindset will be highly sensitive to even small social slights, potentially leading them to overreact significantly to benign interactions.
We can shift students from a focus on self-protection to engaged curiosity. It begins by providing students with a sense of belonging, which is the first step to accessing executive functioning skills. Why is it that the most frequently emphasized aspect of addressing trauma is developing strong, supportive relationships? A sense of safety puts the amygdala—the brain’s threat radar center—at ease, allowing attention to focus on learning. This is especially true of children who look for these relationships with the adults in their world. As Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child explains, “The active ingredients in building resilience are supportive relationships with parents, coaches, teachers, caregivers, and other adults in the community.”
The classroom is a highly social place; everything students do is observed and judged by peers and adults. Even for well-adjusted students, this can make raising a hand to say, “I don’t understand,” an act of courage. This pressure becomes compounded for trauma victims, even more so when they also have learning difficulties. Their hypervigilance in such highly public settings can compound sensitivity to environmental cues, and it results in high levels of stress hormones coursing through their bodies, making self-control nearly impossible.
Understanding this sensitivity to environmental triggers and a traumatized student’s inability to control their body helps us understand why victims of trauma can be so hard to reach. While these students are often the most in need of positive, supportive relationships, their hypervigilance and impulsivity can make them the most difficult students with whom to connect. Additionally, their highly charged emotional responses to subtle triggers can lead to problem behavior that disrupts entire classrooms and further alienates the traumatized student.
Agency and Trauma: What Can We Do?
Preventing or stopping traumatic events from occurring is beyond individual control. As a result, many victims of trauma develop a sense of learned helplessness (see Figure 1 above). When students develop this sense of helplessness, the motivation to attempt to grow is often lost. Their focus then shifts from improving their circumstances to learning to cope with the circumstances as they are. This may explain why victims of trauma often act out impulsively in the classroom, seeking any stimulation and attention that will distract them from their hurt or protect them from a perceived threat.
Children are not born with resilience; it is a learned response to adverse experiences. George Bonanno heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia University, and has studied resilience for nearly 25 years. Bonanno concludes that a central element of resilience is perception: Does the child perceive an event as traumatic or as an opportunity to learn and grow? In order to help young people develop post-traumatic resilience, we need to empower and challenge students so they can rediscover the control they have and overcome the victimization they experienced.
Martin Seligman, the director of the Positive Psychology Center and Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology in the Penn Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, spent much of his career studying how exceptional humans overcome adversity. His work helped soldiers and trauma victims regain this sense of agency by shifting their attribution of the traumatic events in key ways. His work focused on helping trauma victims shift how they interpreted events from internal and permanent factors to external and temporary. These shifts returned a sense of agency to many trauma victims, allowing them to regain a sense of control, leading the way to post-traumatic growth rather than stress.
The popular growth mindset research of Carol Dweck and others is another avenue to promote agency in students. When students are able to maintain a growth mindset, they are able to stay focused on the actions they can take to learn, heal, and transcend. However, if they come to believe their circumstances are fixed or that they are abused due to their character, they will become at increased risk of learned helplessness. When this happens, traumatized students may shift their attention from learning to turning the classroom into a playground to distract them from the pain stored in their bodies.
Meaning and Trauma: Why Did This Happen to Me?
One of the primary functions of the brain is to find patterns; whenever we encounter a new experience, our brain is driven to answer, “Why did this happen?” In many ways, finding this connection between cause and effect is what learning is. This is especially true when we experience traumatic events. Our brains have become especially sensitive to pain, and finding ways to avoid it is a highly effective survival tactic.
Helping students find meaning in their traumatic experiences is especially critical. Trauma creates a crisis of meaning, destroying our sense of order and trust in the world. Traumatic events can be especially challenging because they are overwhelmingly painful experiences with little or no connection to a child’s behavior. Additionally, many victims of abuse or neglect are growing up unable to do anything to make the pain stop. This senseless suffering can further challenge our most fundamental beliefs about the world, undermining assumptions about the meaning or basic goodness of life and people.
Helping students find meaning in their lives is an important element of creating trauma-sensitive schools. Finding meaning reduces feelings of vulnerability and helps restore fundamental assumptions that the world is benevolent, predictable, and meaningful. During his time in Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl’s groundbreaking work detailed the fundamental drive to make meaning of suffering and the critical role it plays in survival and post-traumatic growth. Learning and success require a great deal of personal effort and resilience for even the most talented students. Why would students put in this effort and risk further failure if they feel their life and actions have no purpose? Finding meaning or purpose from the traumatic events can shift students from victimization to having personal power that inspires and transcends the most difficult experiences.
Brains Are Wired to Survive
The critical element of trauma is the emotional response; this is what triggers the fight-or-flight response. These emotions are stored in the body as much as in the brain. As a result, the behaviors of traumatized students can defy logic; they are emotional, not logical. Students are often responding to subtle environmental triggers that activate emotional responses stored in the body long before these cues are processed by the executive functioning areas of the brain.
Before working in education, I spent a decade working in the nonprofit sector as a mentor. This experience allowed me to witness the impact of trauma, racism, and intergenerational poverty on children. Experiencing the vastly different environments that many children live in illustrated that, for many children, their brains have been wired to survive in violent communities with few supports or resources. Sitting calmly and learning the quadratic equation requires fundamentally different neural pathways than those needed to survive when traumatized students go home.
In order to better support students growing up in adverse circumstances, it is important to develop an understanding of the impact of trauma on brain function. These experiences can shift neural pathways away from executive functioning and toward the more primitive fight-or-flight response. As Figure 2 highlights above, when we can create learning communities that radiate belonging, agency, and meaning, we provide an environment for trauma victims to heal and grow. While this will not solve or remove a child’s pain, it will provide them the support, confidence, and purpose to help them heal themselves.
Dustin Bindreiff, EdD, has spent nearly 20 years serving youth in need as a mentor, educator, and administrator committed to creating educational opportunities for all students.