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Student Trauma and the Effects on Executive Functioning and Social and Emotional Learning

Student Trauma and the Effects on Executive Functioning and Social and Emotional Learning

Increasingly, teachers are supporting students who are either disengaged or whose behavior impacts their ability to learn. Often, this behavior also impacts the classroom environment in a way that prevents other students from learning. Teasing out the origin of a behavior can be a challenge. Take inattention, for example. It can be a result of diagnosed attention issues, inadequate sleep or food, or challenges with self-regulation, or it can be a manifestation of trauma. For this blog post, we will look at behavior through the lens of trauma.

Trauma, as well as its many causes, has a direct impact on the executive function of the brain and, therefore, the ability to acquire social, emotional, and academic skills.

According to an article from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child:

Children aren’t born with these [executive function] skills—they are born with the potential to develop them. If children do not get what they need from their relationships with adults and the conditions in their environments—or (worse) if those influences are sources of toxic stress—their skill development can be seriously delayed or impaired. Adverse environments resulting from neglect, abuse, and/or violence may expose children to toxic stress, which disrupts brain architecture and impairs the development of executive function.

Think of the last time you experienced personal tragedy or extreme stress. What was your emotional state the next day? Did your response time change? Did you think as clearly? What if you felt this way every day? This state of functioning makes it difficult to use acquired skills, let alone learn new ones. Consider the impacts for students. Before children in your classroom can learn, you must create a setting of safety and connection that lowers their stress and anxiety so that they can learn.

We now have good research around measurable conditions and events in the lives of children that lead to trauma, allowing us to assess and intervene in ways that can address the trauma and build skills to help decrease its impact. This is where adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) come in.

What are ACEs?

The CDC defines ACEs as:

Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (017 years). For example: experiencing violence or abuse, witnessing violence in the home or community, [and] having a family member attempt or die by suicide. Also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding such as growing up in a household with substance misuse, mental health problems, [or] instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison.

The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success, handbook reveals the impact of ACEs on school performance:

Students dealing with trauma . . . are two-and-one-half times more likely to fail a grade; score lower on standardized achievement test scores; have more receptive or expressive language difficulties; are suspended or expelled more often; and are designated to special education more frequently.

Building skills to offset trauma

Learning about trauma and its impact can often feel overwhelming, but there is hope in the form of sound social and emotional learning (SEL). When you increase executive function (EF) and build SEL skills, youth begin to develop the internal assets or resources to manage ACEs. These internal skills, combined with external connections and resources, build the groundwork for resiliency. Assets include external things like family and community connections, as well as internal attributes like a positive view of the future and skills in self-management. While we cannot take away the trauma, creating a school culture that uses SEL-informed practices increases assets, which can balance the trauma (see the following visual).

How do we create an environment that allows for this skill acquisition?

In order to lay the groundwork for SEL learning and connection, we must create a safe space for youth to begin to move from their fight, flight, or freeze brain, into the prefrontal cortex to utilize executive functioning. Creating an environment where the limbic system can relax can have a profound impact on skill retention. It also allows people to recognize their current state, such as exhaustion, fear, or defensiveness. Let’s first focus on the ideas of safety, stability, and belonging mentioned in the CDC definition and address the concept of basic needs. The excerpt, referring to ACEs, underscores that children in households where these basic needs are not met score higher on the ACEs and are at risk for poorer school outcomes. This fits with what we know about Maslow's hierarchy of needs that states all other needs become secondary until our basic needs are met.                                                       

Think of the adolescent who comes into class and falls sleep. Often, teachers respond by correcting that behavior rather than attempting to understand it. When having this conversation with a tired teen, it can often turn into a power struggle that leads to asking the student to leave class, therefore losing the opportunity to learn; the outcome of that power struggle is often disconnection. What happens if we use the opportunity to build a connection with the student by trying to understand what the underlying need is? When we challenge ourselves to look at the behavior this way, rather than as willful or disrespectful, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs then becomes a useful framework for reinterpreting the sleeping behavior as either a response to being in a safe environment where the student can let his or her guard down (safety needs) OR a physiological need of exhaustion. Understanding the behavior this way can help build empathy and connection, as well as opportunities for constructive problem-solving.  

An article from Psychology Today has the following to say:

It all sounds rather daunting, but what it really comes down to is that we have to rethink some of our most time-honoured assumptions about what children and youth most need from us. So much of the parenting advice that abounds today centers around how to teach children about the consequences of their actions and make these lessons stick; or how to build up a child’s self-control. But what neuroscience is telling us is that kids aren’t going to learn anything from lectures however well-intentioned while they’re in survival brain mode. And what is astonishing is to see just how many children and youth this applies to today. For all of them, you have to turn off their alarm in order for them to hear and absorb what you’re saying, much less think about consequences and have the capacity to choose a different action. 

Understanding behavior is always challenging. Behaviors that look similar can have origins in very different places. All people want to feel safe and connected. If students are functioning in ways that lead to disconnection, the only control that we have is to inform our own response to that behavior with compassion and to work to understand the function of the behavior and the environmental impact. When this happens, the groundwork is laid for mitigating trauma in ways that allow for successful interventions in the areas of EF and SEL. These interventions can serve to empower youth impacted by ACEs to begin to improve their control over their own responses in ways that build connection.

Want more information about understanding how to support students who have experienced trauma? Check out this blog post on How to Get Started with Trauma-Informed Teaching: 6 Resources for Educators!

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Jen Perry

Jen Perry currently serves as the Director, Whole Learning and SEL at Edmentum. Jen joined Edmentum as the Learning Designer for Social-Emotional Learning after 30+ years of work with youth in educational and community settings. As a teacher, administrator, and trainer, her passion has been to help educators develop an understanding of the importance of social and emotional learning and build trauma-informed responses and systems. This work has included supporting youth, administrators, and schools in understanding behavior and implementing transformational change through strength-based approaches.