Why do some children sit in a classroom, listen attentively, and behave well, while others find it almost impossible to focus and lash out against the adults who are trying to teach them? For generations, the assumptions have been about how they were raised or how effectively their parents disciplined them. That may have been your immediate reaction to my question.
In recent years, medical scientists studying the brain have come to realize another factor may be behind problem behavior. They’re finding evidence that traumas experienced in early childhood (even in the womb!) have a lasting effect on how children react to a variety of situations, including learning.
In this context, trauma refers to what the scientists call adverse childhood experiences (ACES), situations in children’s lives that have negatively affected their sense of safety or well-being. Those ACES make up a lengthy list, from child abuse and neglect, to living in a home with domestic violence or substance abuse, to issues such as having far more medical procedures than is typical. Nearly everyone will experience at least one of the ACES as a child, and one or two of them generally doesn’t problems. However, children who have experienced severe or multiple ACES struggle with many aspects of behavior we take for granted, such as being able to focus and learn in a classroom setting.
We know how important nurturing is to infants, and scientists are confirming the importance of those gentle contacts between parents and children. But the brains of youngsters who experience trauma are instinctively focused on survival. Instead of building connections with the adults around them, their brains concentrate on self-protection, generating excessive amounts of stress hormones. As the children grow, the natural response to uncomfortable situations becomes more stress hormones. Instead of learning new things, they learn to pull away from the world, so they don’t behave the way other children do. They struggle with developing relationships and processing new information. When their brains become overwhelmed, they react in unhealthy ways — and well-meaning teachers who try to correct their behavior may exacerbate it and become even more frustrated.
It’s not a hopeless situation. We’ve also learned evidence-based strategies to help children who have experienced trauma cope with their feelings and react in more constructive ways. What we call trauma-competent classrooms are those in which teachers have learned about the effects of trauma and these strategies. We’ve created a workshop that will help your classroom or Sunday morning volunteers better understand why some students struggle and become disruptive, giving them techniques that will create an environment in which all students can focus on learning. We’d welcome the opportunity to discuss it with you.
Brittany Smith is one of Care to Change’s therapists. She focuses on helping young children and teens who have faced challenges find the guidance and support needed to become healthy adults.