Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

The Brain Science Behind Student Trauma

By Bruce D. Perry — December 13, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
The Brain Science Behind Student Trauma: The brain’s response to trauma and unpredictable stress has critical implications for student learning, explains researcher Bruce Perry.

The most remarkable feature of humankind is the flexibility of our brains. This neuroplasticity—or the brain’s ability to adjust its activities in response to new situations—is what has allowed our species to make dramatic changes from generation to generation. Humans have evolved from small hunter-gatherer clans to urban, digitally connected, international communities. The most malleable part of our brain is the neocortex, which can absorb and store more bits of information than the brains of any other species. This capacity for cognitive thinking allowed us to create language, democracy, and thousands of other inventions.

In fact, our most remarkable invention is public education: a structured system to provide the social and cognitive stimulation children need to take advantage of their brain’s malleability and develop knowledge and skills in mathematics, science, and history. By providing structured cognitive and social experiences, the U.S. public education system has expressed the potential of millions of children, which has, in turn, led to invention, creativity, and productivity that has transformed the world.

The key to the success of any educational experience is the capacity to “get to the cortex.” Yet, each year, nearly one-third of all children attending U.S. public schools will have significantly impaired cortical functioning due to abuse, neglect, domestic violence, poverty, and other adversities. Understanding the effects of trauma on a child’s brain and how these effects alter the ability to learn is essential to improving our public education system.

The brain has a set of crucial neural networks that mediate stress response. When children have attentive caregiving at home and supported emotional, motor, social, and cognitive experiences throughout their early years, they develop a well-regulated stress-response system. This leads to experiences in learning and growth that shape a child in positive ways.

When trauma or unpredictable stress brought on by poverty alters these systems, the neural networks involved in the stress response stop working properly, which can lead to emotional, behavioral, and learning problems. Trauma-related alterations to these systems can shut down areas of the brain that would normally control impulses of the neocortex. This makes it much more difficult for children to learn traditional cognitive content in school, including the ability to learn to read.

Children who have experienced trauma will be in a persistent state of alarm and less capable of concentrating when they enter classrooms. Because of this, they will pay more attention to the nonverbal cues of a teacher, such as tone of voice, body posture, and facial expressions. Unless teachers adopt some regulating practices for those students, such as meditative breathing or rhythmic motor activity, children will remain in the alarm state, impairing cognitive learning.

15 comm perry

The effects of trauma on student learning have implications for understanding the achievement gap. Even without overt experiences of trauma, children who live in stressful environments of poverty don’t internalize new information at the same rate as children who enter the classroom in a calm state. Year after year, traumatized students learn at a slower rate, disengage, and ultimately fall behind—a vicious cycle that all too often leads them to drop out of school.

Fortunately, there are proven practices, programs, and policies that can help prevent and heal stress and trauma-related problems within a school community and in the classroom. When teachers understand the effects of trauma, they can begin to better understand the children who experience it and effectively address behavioral problems. The integration of relationally based disciplinary models and self-care for students, as well as secondary-stress-reduction practices for teachers and trauma-sensitive policies within a school can all make a difference.

Successful neuroscience- and trauma-informed education practices, programs, and policies show that when children feel safe and connected, our greatest invention—public education—can be more effective in helping express the potential in all students.

Related Tags:

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as The Brain Science Behind Trauma

Events

Student Well-Being Webinar After-School Learning Top Priority: Academics or Fun?
Join our expert panel to discuss how after-school programs and schools can work together to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss.
Budget & Finance Webinar Leverage New Funding Sources with Data-Informed Practices
Address the whole child using data-informed practices, gain valuable insights, and learn strategies that can benefit your district.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
ChatGPT & Education: 8 Ways AI Improves Student Outcomes
Revolutionize student success! Don't miss our expert-led webinar demonstrating practical ways AI tools will elevate learning experiences.
Content provided by Inzata

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being How Principals Can Help Support Students Through a Mental Health Crisis
Principals know the challenges—and can help with solutions.
5 min read
mental health 182746825
WoodenheadWorld/E+/Getty
Student Well-Being Chaplains Could Work as School Counselors Under Bill Passed in Texas
Critics see the measure as a continuation of the erosion of the concept of separating church from state.
3 min read
This June 1, 2021, file photo shows the State Capitol in Austin, Texas.
This June 1, 2021, file photo shows the State Capitol in Austin, Texas.
Eric Gay/AP
Student Well-Being 4 States Consider Mandating Fentanyl Prevention Education in Schools
Oregon is poised to adopt the legislation, but drug education in schools is often weak or underemphasized.
4 min read
Photograph of Fentanyl opioid narcotic teaching awareness tools sitting on a definition page
Bojan Vujicic/iStock/Getty<br/>
Student Well-Being The U.S. Surgeon General's Warning About Social Media and What It Means for Schools
Schools have been ringing alarm bells over social media and kids' mental health. Now their cause is getting a major boost.
6 min read
Conceptual image of a young person engaged in social media.
YoGinta/iStock/Getty