What We’ve Learned About Trauma and Learning Challenges

What are traumatic events?

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines a traumatic event as “a sudden and unexpected occurrence that causes intense fear and may involve a threat of physical harm or actual physical harm. A traumatic experience may have a profound effect on the physical health, mental health, and development of a student.” These events are often referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Traumatic events can arise from neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse.

The impact of trauma on learning

Recent neurobiological, epigenetic, and psychological studies have shown that traumatic experiences in childhood can have many long term effects.They can:

  • Diminish concentration, memory, and the organizational and language abilities children need to succeed in school.
  • Lead to problems with academic performance,
  • Result in inappropriate behavior in the classroom, and difficulty forming relationships.

According to research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser-Permanente, these impacts can add up to poor academic performance, and later problems in life, including:

  • Risky health behaviors,
  • Chronic health conditions,
  • Low life potential, and
  • Early death.

Resilience can make the difference

According to a report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, entitled Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Lifelong Consequences of Trauma, past traumatic events do not necessarily dictate the future for the child.  The report authors cite the ability of “protective factors” that can counter adverse childhood experiences and  build resilience that allows a child to thrive. They state:

“Children survive and even thrive despite the trauma in their lives. For these children, adverse experiences are counterbalanced with protective factors. Adverse events and protective factors experienced together have the potential to foster resilience. Our knowledge about what constitutes resilience in children is evolving, but we know that several factors are positively related to such protection, including cognitive capacity, healthy attachment relationships (especially with parents and caregivers), the motivation and ability to learn and engage with the environment, the ability to regulate emotions and behavior, and supportive environmental systems,including education, cultural beliefs, and faith-based communities.”

Toward a practice of building resilience

Today, research is leading to a better understanding of the role that non-cognitive capabilities – e.g., grit, self-control, perseverance and delay of gratification play in a child’s ability to succeed in school.  Paul Tough, bestselling author of How Children Succeed and Helping Children Succeed, outlines this research in a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, “How Kids Learn Resilience.” These non-cognitive capabilities form the foundation of the executive functioning skills everyone needs to perform well both in school and at work. Executive function coaching, a proven method for helping students with learning challenges, succeeds because it builds both interpersonal relationship skills and non-cognitive capacity.

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