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How childhood trauma affects learning and how to help children overcome it

Childhood abuse and other extreme stressors can have lasting effects on areas of the brain that are involved in memory, learning and emotion.

During a stressful event, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activates the freeze, fight or flight response. The stress hormone cortisol is released. Normally, when the stressor is removed, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) responds and returns the body to normal.

This does not take place in traumatic events, as the unusually large amounts of stress cause excess cortisol to be released in the body. That large amount of cortisol has negative effects on the brain, damaging the hippocampus.

Damage to the hippocampus impairs a child’s ability to form new memories and therefore their ability to learn. Verbal learning - in which the child has difficulty retaining information gathered from verbal sources, compared to visual - can be affected. Trauma can also affect a child’s ability to focus and maintain attention.

Even after the stressful or traumatic situation has passed, children’s brains and bodies continue to react as if the stress is continuing. Children and young people who have experienced trauma have little space left for learning. Their constant state of tension and arousal can leave them unable to concentrate, pay attention, retain and recall new information. Their behaviour is often challenging in the school environment.

With support, children and young people can, and do, recover from the harmful effects of trauma. To do so, however, they need adults in their lives to be understanding of and responsive to their unique needs. They cannot easily adapt and change to their environment.

Traumatised children and young people respond to their environment with limited access to the resources in their cortex responsible for thinking, logic, analysis and problem-solving. This is recognised in trauma-informed practice and, in a school environment, this practice supports children and young people to reset their baseline internal stress and arousal levels to bring their cortex back on line. This is possible in any learning environment.

MacKillop Education Services supports children and young people who are disengaged from learning, or who are at risk of disengaging or being excluded from learning. These students have often experienced, or continue to experience trauma, which impacts on their capacity to successfully access education.