What We’ve Learned About Trauma and Learning Challenges

AdobeStock_12610715 v2What are traumatic events?

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines a traumatic event as “a sudden and unexpected occurrence that causes intense fear and may involve a threat of physical harm or actual physical harm. A traumatic experience may have a profound effect on the physical health, mental health, and development of a student.” These events are often referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Traumatic events can arise from neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse.

The impact of trauma on learning

Recent neurobiological, epigenetic, and psychological studies have shown that traumatic experiences in childhood can have many long term effects.They can:

  • Diminish concentration, memory, and the organizational and language abilities children need to succeed in school.
  • Lead to problems with academic performance,
  • Result in inappropriate behavior in the classroom, and difficulty forming relationships.

According to research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser-Permanente, these impacts can add up to poor academic performance, and later problems in life, including:

  • Risky health behaviors,
  • Chronic health conditions,
  • Low life potential, and
  • Early death.

Resilience can make the difference

According to a report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, entitled Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Lifelong Consequences of Trauma, past traumatic events do not necessarily dictate the future for the child.  The report authors cite the ability of “protective factors” that can counter adverse childhood experiences and  build resilience that allows a child to thrive. They state:

“Children survive and even thrive despite the trauma in their lives. For these children, adverse experiences are counterbalanced with protective factors. Adverse events and protective factors experienced together have the potential to foster resilience. Our knowledge about what constitutes resilience in children is evolving, but we know that several factors are positively related to such protection, including cognitive capacity, healthy attachment relationships (especially with parents and caregivers), the motivation and ability to learn and engage with the environment, the ability to regulate emotions and behavior, and supportive environmental systems,including education, cultural beliefs, and faith-based communities.”

Toward a practice of building resilience

Today, research is leading to a better understanding of the role that non-cognitive capabilities – e.g., grit, self-control, perseverance and delay of gratification play in a child’s ability to succeed in school.  Paul Tough, bestselling author of How Children Succeed and Helping Children Succeed, outlines this research in a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, “How Kids Learn Resilience.” These non-cognitive capabilities form the foundation of the executive functioning skills everyone needs to perform well both in school and at work. Executive function coaching, a proven method for helping students with learning challenges, succeeds because it builds both interpersonal relationship skills and non-cognitive capacity.

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3 Responses

  1. Jean
    | Reply

    Hi,
    Have you dealt with any college students leaving college and depression/anxiety disorder?
    My son came home and is in very bad shape.

    • Jen
      | Reply

      My son had the same experience. What away to college for one semester and things went downhill pretty quickly… Within the first month and continued to get worse. We thought a lot of it was just the “going away from home“ normal stuff for most college students. We encouraged him in many ways and he did reach out to his RA as well as other campus helps but in addition to trouble adjusting, he had a horrible roommate situation and dorm situation which left him feeling very vulnerable with nowhere to go to feel comfortable. When he left for college he was an A/B student. He tanked at college and had GPA of under two by the time he was done. And that wasn’t because of partying, he just got so overwhelmed he kind of froze up and checked out. He came home at semester end depressed, anxious, hopeless. We have always had a very close relationship so thankfully he talked to us. He even felt suicidal but said he did not want to act on it because he would hurt us and possibly others. It was very rough for about six months of talking, counseling and processing what happened in that semester. It was also him growing in awareness of himself, his processing issues, and how to adjust his expectations both of himself and of situations and how life will go. And quite frankly, when he told us he was going to go away for college, we did not discourage it but at the same time we did encourage him to actually take a gap year between high school and college because we we’re kind of expecting it to be a very difficult transition for him and thought the extra year would give him other experiences and maturing that could help. He took a year off from school completely and just worked. Part time at first as he processed what happened and then full-time. His desire to go back to school grew and once again talked about going away. Both my husband and I thought it would be enough for him to tackle school full-time even locally without going away but, again, did not want to discourage him. Instead, we let him pursue investigating the school he wanted to go to and I took him for a day visit to the campus, exploring everything from classes, to the buildings and campus layout, to the dorm situations. By the end of the day on our drive home, he had pretty much decided he would go to the local branch campus of the same university so he could stay at home and tackle school from there. It has been a great decision for him because it is allowed him to succeed in classes without the additional pressures of being away at school. He has matured so much and he does want to eventually transfer to the main campus because they offer some things the local one doesn’t and we believe he will be able to make this transition soon. I still don’t think it will be easy, but he is much better equipped in every way to do it. He has learned a lot about himself. He has ADHD and is on the spectrum.

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