School Climate & Safety Opinion

This Is What Happens to a Student’s Brain When Exposed to Gun Violence

Traumatized and hypervigilant brains cannot learn effectively
By Amanda M. Dettmer & Tammy L. Hughes — June 27, 2022 5 min read
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As gun violence takes its place as the leading cause of death in children and teens, Americans must consider whether schools are among those places where children are persistently at-risk. It is true that children and teens live in homes and neighborhoods where there are increasing rates of violence, death, and suicide by guns, and that mass shootings account for the smallest number of those gun deaths.

Yet, it is also true that in the wake of the events at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and after more than 250 mass shootings in the country this year, more than half of educators report fear of a large-scale school shooting as a key safety concern. Parents, educators, and the public are faced with the question: How can schools be safe for learning?

The answer: by prioritizing and optimizing psychological safety.

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Traumatized brains cannot learn effectively. Hypervigilant brains cannot learn effectively. The science has been clear on this for years, and the COVID-19 pandemic brought this knowledge into sharp relief: When young, developing brains experience a toxic stressor—meaning, a strong, uncontrollable stressor absent adequate psychological supports—they are profoundly affected.

The same is true whether children survive a mass shooting at their school, witness gun violence in their homes or communities, or lose a primary attachment figure such as a teacher or relative to gun violence. The experience of gun violence (trauma), or the heightened worry over their own safety even in the absence of experiencing gun violence (hypervigilance) rewires the brain at its most sensitive periods of development.

The experience of, or excessive worry about, toxic stressors like gun violence affects three key brain functions which students depend on for learning. First, the brain’s emotional response function goes into overdrive: It shows heightened reactions to emotional stimuli and has greater difficulty disengaging from them, ultimately resulting in greater reactivity to threat and therefore greater perceived stress. Because the brain’s emotional processing areas are also critical for perspective-taking, social interactions, and for attention, learning is impaired.

Second, the brain’s reward processing areas are diminished. The brain responds less robustly to rewards, which in turn increases reward-seeking behavior. This impairment affects learning by directly affecting students’ motivation and attention, decisionmaking, and ability to respond to different types of reinforcements in the classroom, which are crucial for learning new skills.

Finally, the brain’s “air traffic control tower” is compromised. The prefrontal cortex coordinates higher cognitive functions including working memory, attention shifting, and executive function skills. It also mediates empathy and self-regulation. Following traumatic events like gun violence, the prefrontal cortex coordinates connections in the brain are weakened while responses to threat are strengthened, impairing top-down control and shifting the brain from a more reflective to a more reflexive state.

Children are not primed for optimal learning in a reflexive state. Brains in pain do not learn. The traumatized and hypervigilant brain affords most of its energy toward survival and the least amount to learning. Under psychologically and physically safe conditions, however, the brain can focus most of its energy on learning.

Children, of course, are not the only ones affected by the toxic stressor of gun violence. Teachers across grade levels and across the country are traumatized by school shootings, and they need time and space to process events like these—not to treat the day after “like any typical school day.” How can teachers be expected to provide the best learning environment for the students under these conditions?

Teachers require their own time to share their reactions with other adults. Support from friends, family and community is irreplaceable. “Solider on” approaches can disrupt expressions of care by minimizing teachers’ experience of stress. When teachers need time to step away and refresh, explicit support from colleagues and administrators, and in the form of policy protecting these needs, is required. Ignoring personal needs is a recipe for burnout, and, in the longer term, for teachers leaving the profession.

There are straightforward preventive measures we can take to maximize students;’ learning potential. The science also informs us here. When children feel safe and secure—physically, yes, but especially psychologically—they are primed for optimal learning.

This type of safety comes in many forms. Consistent and predictable routines and stable adult presence, such as those provided in homes, schools, and communities, are paramount to optimizing learning. When teachers have the structures in place to model how they manage their own reactions, students benefit. Teachers explaining how they notice the need for help and how to reach out for support are valuable lessons. Hearing that “we are in this together” can make students’ fears more manageable, which in turn enables and promotes their learning.

Increased public safety begins with practical solutions that help our young people to thrive in their school and communities. We can accomplish this by focusing on stacking positive factors, such as implementing programming that addresses traumas and establishes school connectedness, and by addressing bullying and other times kids are feeling excluded.

However, these types of psychological safety nets are compromised when easy access to military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines result in the murder of children’s peers, teachers, caregivers, and neighbors. Any positive in-school interventions must be simultaneously accompanied by reducing potential harms, such as limiting what kinds of guns and ammunition are available for purchase, and by whom.

Our courts and lawmakers must reduce potential harm to students by making it harder, not easier, to acquire and carry firearms. They must also require, not just encourage, red flag laws across the country.

By stacking positive factors and offloading negative factors, the scales tip toward the positive, and children and educators are situated to optimize learning in the classroom. The end result will be a lasting effect on a student’s capacity to develop into healthy adults and responsible citizens.

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2022 edition of Education Week as The Cognitive Toll of Gun Violence


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