(One of NISCE’s partner schools, Dearborn Academy, works exclusively with learning disabled students and has been developing a better understanding of the impact of childhood trauma on learning. We invited Linda Johnson, the Clinical Coordinator at Dearborn Academy High School, and Howard Rossman, Director of Dearborn Academy, to share some of what they’ve discovered. Linda is responsible for helping the Dearborn High School, Elementary/Middle School, and STEP become trauma-informed programs.)
When a student experiences trauma or grief in early life, that experience can have profound consequences on learning. We talked to Kelly Pratt, Senior Clinician and Consultant for Pathways to Permanency at the Justice Resource Institute Trauma Center, to learn more about the impact of trauma on learning.
“Trauma is defined as an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury, or threat to physical integrity,” according to Pratt. “The child’s response includes intense fear, horror or helplessness.” Though this is how the DSM and therapeutic community define trauma, Pratt says this doesn’t begin to capture the complexity or range of responses children have to such experiences.
While the general view has been that very young children may have more resilience to tragedy, research suggests this isn’t the case. “When very young children experience trauma, the consequences can be more serious,” Pratt says. “Trauma can physically change a child’s ‘hard-wiring’.” The physical changes are immediate, intense and, most important, potentially permanent.”
Pratt emphasizes that a traumatized child struggles with anxiety disorders, oppositional defiant disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or learning disorders. They may also respond unexpectedly to everyday occurrences. For traumatized children, for example, typical school experiences like class bells, jostling in the hallways and fire drills can be highly alarming or stressful, even as other kids shrug off such interruptions. Educators need to notice and understand so that we can help students deal with the ongoing impact.
Models for Learning
While the simple rhythm of the classroom experience benefits most students and helps them succeed and learn, structure, safety and predictability are essential for traumatized children. Without a safe and predictable environment, the challenges of positive academic, social and emotional growth can often be overwhelming.
Pratt offers a model of interaction drawn from Treating Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents: how to foster resilience through attachment, self-regulation, and competency, by Margaret Blaustein and Kristine Kinniburgh. The first step involved is to help students create positive attachments with staff and peers. The creation of meaningful, trusting relationships between teachers and students increases the chance that this ‘whole child’ will be understood and supported—and even begin to recover.
The challenge for educators is that every student is different and may respond to trauma or support in different ways. It’s important to know each student individually and to understand the impact these experiences have had on them. “This understanding is a critical component of working with any student,” she says, “but especially when working with those having multiple traumatic experiences.”
As educators, our goal is to increase a student’s ability to succeed in a school setting. We need to remain conscious of the possible wide-ranging effects trauma can have on our students and use the full range of tools and supports that are available to help them succeed.
The Pathways to Permanency Program
The National Traumatic Stress Network
Trauma’s Impact on Learning and Behavior: A Case for Interventions in Schools
By: William Steele, MSW, PsyD