Childhood stress and learning: towards trauma-informed schools

Career & Education

Childhood stress and learning: towards trauma-informed schools

Dr Karla Hylton

Sunday, November 10, 2019

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Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), referring to traumatic events in childhood (0-17 years), have become so commonplace in everyday life that one can hardly turn on the television or listen to the radio without hearing about horrific experiences that children, not only in Jamaica but throughout the world, have endured.

These traumatic events include exposure to abuse (physical, emotional and sexual), violence, neglect, death, suicide, etc. Undoubtedly, such experiences can give rise to devastating, long-term, and far-reaching impacts.

The term came out of a landmark study conducted between 1995-1997 by Kaiser-Permanente. The scientific data uncovered a correlation between trauma and toxic stress experienced in childhood, to long-term physical and mental well-being in adulthood. The take-away from the study, particularly for educators, is to shift the paradigm from identifying what is 'wrong' with a child to what has 'happened' to a child.

Subsequent to the Kaiser-Permanente study, research consistently connects ACEs to the developing brain of children, their social and emotional development, as well as their ability to learn. In fact, it is becoming increasingly apparent that ACEs are a critical public health issue.

Traumatic events don't only affect the external body; they also affect the mind. Stress and adversity may lead to responses in children, which include intense fear, terror and helplessness. When these emotions are repeatedly activated, the level of stress hormones — the so-called 'fight' or 'flight' cortisol and adrenaline — rises to toxic concentrations resulting in possible changes in brain structure. Science shows that the hippocampus in the brain — responsible for navigation as well as short- and long-term memory — actually shrinks as a result of increased stress hormones over time.

As a result, traumatised children develop 'survivor behaviours', which may include violence, substance abuse, self-injury, eating disorders, etc. They may also be triggered to respond negatively to non-threatening events, meaning that they are unable to regulate their emotions or reactions if they become overwhelmed even if the situation is not dangerous. These children may experience flashbacks and intrusive thoughts which interfere with learning and social behaviours, and unfortunately, these responses can carry right throughout adulthood.

The good news is that while prevention is key, the impacts of ACEs can be mitigated, treated and possibly reversed in adulthood. We already know that mentally healthy children are more successful in school. Mental health is not just the absence of mental illness, but rather a continuum of support, development and healthy coping skills. In that regard, listening and acting on the needs of our children need to be foremost in the minds of school administrators and educators to ensure good learning outcomes.

Child research organisation Child Trends reported in 2014 that more than half of the population of children by the age of 16 would have been exposed to some form of violence or abuse. Therefore, it is imperative to recognise the situation and come up with tools to mitigate and remediate. While schools are not mental health facilities, they are the primary point of contact between the family and the child and as such, must play a role. That role is to manifest through trauma-informed care (TIC), which describes approaches for recognition of and response to ACEs. The main thrust of the approach is to provide students with a consistently safe and caring environment. It involves teaching self-care and self-love. Rich relationships with teachers help students to become resilient.

Children exposed to trauma typically feel that their power of choice has been taken away from them, but teachers can help them recover by giving them options in the learning process. As simple as it may sound, choice can give them back a feeling of control and empowerment. Another strategy is to maintain the same high expectations of students irrespective of exposure to trauma.

Developing trauma-informed schools is a requirement in today's world; not an option. It requires a change in mindset among teachers, administrators, policymakers and school staff. It commands a transformation in school culture and development of interventions suitable to our society.

The questions that need to be asked going forward are:

1. Are our educators being trained to understand ACEs and TIC?

2. Will there be policies implemented so that schools may adopt a universal approach to TIC?

3. Do we have enough guidance counsellors in our schools?

4. Is enough time spent on the emotional development of our children?

5. Is clinical support available and accessible?

Dr Karla Hylton, UWI lecturer in biology, is the author of Yes! You Can Help Your Child Achieve Academic Success and Complete Chemistry for Caribbean High Schools. Reach her at (876) 564-1347, or

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