Education and the Child of Trauma

How to navigate the education system for kids with a trauma history.

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Schools are filled with children who are victims of recent trauma or have a life filled with trauma. The violence in communities witnessed by youth has become so pervasive in some communities that in some studies, over half of all children surveyed had witnessed some form of violence in the year prior to the survey. Educators face this student body without the understanding necessary to enable children to access the appropriate cognitive experiences. Cognitive education has always been the schools’ responsibility. Social and emotional learning, we hope, are the parents’ domains. Ideally, it is the family that teaches children values, morals, and respect for others. Oftentimes it is the family that is the primary source of trauma. It has been estimated that more than 250,000 students are attacked in school each month. The following paper was written to assist school systems in gaining a better knowledge of the child with a trauma history within the educational environment. This paper is written from the premise that the primary task of the educational system is to provide children with appropriately-based cognitive experiences. It must be understood that cognitive education is generally the primary responsibility of schools with social and emotional learning as a by-product to the direct learning environment provided.

Early Exposure to Trauma

The early exposure to traumatic experience, especially during the time frame from conception to age three, exposes the developing neurophysiologic system to what can be termed as “arrested emotional development.” The environment of calm interaction between parent and child is necessary to the successful development of the brain/body tools for emotional regulation (the state of calm functioning). When this is absent, the normal and healthy developmental experiences are missed. This absence of calm interaction creates a response of chronic stress and the child is essentially left without soothing. In this manner, the developing child continuously experiences stress during the time when he should be experiencing calm interaction. The resulting outcome is an individual system poorly equipped for tolerating and managing stressful environments. Due to the stimulating environment, minus the parent figure, school can be a highly stressful experience for such children.

In addition, it is not the feeling of stress triggered by the stressful environment, but rather the emotional state of fear. The brain and body respond to stress inwardly, but this translates cognitively into fear, which then triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response. The specific receptor in the limbic system equipped for responding to threats is the amygdala. The amygdala responds automatically to any manner of threat. For example, in a situation where a child becomes scared, a fear reaction occurs immediately. This is an automatic reaction of the amygdala. Conversely, the hippocampus is the area of the limbic system responsible for determining how stressful the situation truly is. In this manner, the hippocampus acts as the fear regulator, the component ultimately responsible for effective stress regulation. The hippocampus then communicates to the rational area of the brain and makes the decision whether to calm down, fight, freeze, or flee. The hippocampus allows the child to think in the midst of the experience, “Well, maybe this is not so scary after all.” Therefore, the child calms down and is no longer frightened.

Brain research leads us to believe that the amygdala forms while still in utero. The hippocampus, on the other hand, is developing throughout the critical, early period of infancy. In this manner, if the environment has been overly stressful and lacks effective parental regulation at an early age, the hippocampus becomes stagnated in its growth. Hence, the term “arrested emotional development.” Ultimately, this leads to an amygdala that pours out stress and a hippocampus that is so poorly developed that it is unable to determine to any successful degree how stressful the event may truly be. As a result, the stress and relating fear escalate, and the rational processes become confused and distorted. Bruce Perry has referred to such a state in children as an “amygdala hijacking.” The amygdala pumps out stress and fear in an uncontrollable manner, and the child is essentially held hostage to his own neurophysiology.

As this child continues to grow, his emotional system remains under arrest. This continues until an environment conducive to constant regulation has been provided. Once such an environment has been provided, the slow, tedious process of reparative stress interaction begins to occur. In this manner, the developing system begins to learn some degree of emotional regulation throughout each day. Overly stressful interactions send this highly sensitive system rapidly back into old patterns of chronic, intensified fear, triggered from the stress reaction. For example, the inmate is let out of jail on probation under constant supervision and positive interaction; however, with any lack in supervision, the highly sensitive inmate is quickly drawn into the wrong crowd and before long ends up back in jail. This prospect of providing an environment conducive to constant regulation becomes increasingly difficult for parents, and over time the supervision becomes lax and the interaction not nearly as positive. Therefore, the developing system is rarely allotted the necessary environment to overcome the powerful effects of the early trauma (stress) exposure.

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Questions and comments regarding this paper are encouraged and may be sent to Dr. Post at bryan_post@hotmail.com