THE PROBLEM: IMPACT
2. Traumatic experiences can impact learning, behavior and relationships at school.
Recent neurobiological, epigenetics, and psychological studies have shown that traumatic experiences in childhood can diminish concentration, memory, and the organizational and language abilities children need to succeed in school. For some children, this can lead to problems with academic performance, inappropriate behavior in the classroom, and difficulty forming relationships. Learning about the impacts of trauma can help keep educators from misunderstanding the reasons underlying some children’s difficulties with learning, behavior and relationships.
A) Childhood Trauma and Academic Performance
Learning to read, write, take part in a discussion, and solve mathematical problems rests on many underlying foundations—organization, comprehension, memory, the ability to produce work, engagement in learning, and trust. Another prerequisite for achieving classroom competency is the ability to self-regulate attention, emotions, and behavior. Not surprisingly, trauma resulting from overwhelming experiences has the power to disturb a student’s development of these foundations for learning. It can undermine the development of language and communication skills, thwart the establishment of a coherent sense of self, compromise the ability to attend to classroom tasks and instructions, interfere with the ability to organize and remember new information, and hinder the grasping of cause-and-effect relationships—all of which are necessary to process information effectively. Trauma can also interfere with the capacity for creative play, which is one of the ways children learn how to cope with the problems of everyday life.
B) Childhood Trauma and Classroom Behavior
For many children who have experienced traumatic events, the school setting can feel like a battleground in which their assumptions of the world as a dangerous place sabotage their ability to remain calm and regulate their behavior in the classroom. Unfortunately, many of these children develop behavioral coping mechanisms in an effort to feel safe and in control, yet these behaviors can frustrate educators and evoke exasperated reprisals, reactions that both strengthen the child’s expectations of confrontation and danger and reinforce a negative self-image.
Many of the effects of traumatic experiences on classroom behavior originate from the same problems that create academic difficulties: the inability to process social cues and to convey feelings in an appropriate manner. This behavior can be highly confusing, and children suffering from the behavioral impacts of trauma are often profoundly misunderstood. Whether a child who has experienced traumatic events externalizes (acts out) or internalizes (withdraws, is numb, frozen, or depressed), a child’s behavioral response to traumatic events can lead to lost learning time and strained relationships with teachers and peers.
C) Childhood Trauma and Relationships
Children’s struggles with traumatic stress and their insecure relationships with adults outside of school can adversely affect their relationships with school personnel and with peers. Preoccupied with their physical and psychological safety, children who have experienced traumatic events may be distrustful of adults and/or fellow students and unsure of the security of the school setting in general. They may also suffer delays in the development of age-appropriate social skills. They may not know how to initiate and cultivate healthy interpersonal relationships with their teachers or their peers.