Brain research has led to two striking findings that have led some schools to change the way they work with children who’ve dealt with trauma and violence.
The first finding: Exposure to experiences like divorce, abuse, violence in the home, and parental incarceration can actually change the structure of a child’s brain, and the resulting behaviors can often be mistaken for defiance or disengagement. The more hopeful second finding: Research has also demonstrated that having a strong relationship with an influential adult can provide stability for a child, helping to counteract the effects of trauma on their brain.
To help build awareness of the importance of adults in children’s lives, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Ad Council, and Futures Without Violence have teamed up to launch a campaign called Changing Minds that features emotional videos of former students reuniting with the adults who helped anchor them through difficult childhood experiences.
“The idea behind Changing Minds is that adults who regularly interact with children (teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, nurses, social workers, etc.) can reverse the negative impact that witnessing violence has on a child’s brain and increase a child’s chance of success through ‘everyday gestures,’ like comforting, listening, and collaborating with them,” a campaign announcement says.
The videos include this one, a simple explanation of the brain science behind a growing field of research called adverse childhood experiences.
But the centerpiece of the campaign are shorter and longer length mini profiles of survivors of youth violence and the adults who helped them succeed. Here are a few that will stoke all of those feel-good emotions that help adults stay motivated as they walk through the tough times with students.
Chad talks about a football coach who helped him deal with an abusive father.
Unique explains the normalized violence she witnessed in middle school, including her friend’s stabbing. Her mentor explains what she saw in Unique: “She’s one of the students who taught me how deep I could love,” she says.
A longer video about the brain science behind these stories and more information are available on the Changing Minds website.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
This brain research will not be unfamiliar to many who work with children. Research around the effects of adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress has snowballed in recent years, and schools, health care providers, and public safety professionals have sought to explore cross-sector solutions to address its effects.
That research started with a study of over 17,000 adults in Southern California conducted at Kaiser Permanente in the mid-1990s. Using the results of confidential surveys about patients’ childhood experiences, researchers tied exposure to traumatic events to a number of poor health and social outcomes later in life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has illustrated those outcomes in this pyramid.
My colleague, Sarah Sparks, has written previously about how childhood trauma can effect students’ self-regulation and cognitive development.
Have you seen this research play out in your community or in the lives of children you know?
Related reading about childhood trauma, violence, and mentoring:
- Research Traces Impacts of Childhood Adversity
- Author: To Reach Struggling Students, Schools Need to Be More ‘Trauma-Sensitive’
- Parents’ Incarceration Takes Toll on Children, Studies Say
- Schools Legally Obligated to Address Effects of Trauma on Students, Suit Says
- Schools Explore Benefits of Peer Counseling
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.