Taming Our Trauma Brain
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, more than two-thirds of children will experience at least one traumatic event before the age 16. This statistic is startling. As educators, we need to be aware of the effects of trauma on the students who enter our schools. I have an 11-year-old daughter whom I adopted when she was five. Her background of abuse and trauma will always be a part of her, even though she now lives in a thriving and happy home. I am continually amazed at her resilience and ability to overcome the trauma of her early childhood. However, periodically she experiences an event that triggers her, putting her back into what I call her trauma brain. In this state, she becomes super clumsy, running into walls, or tripping over her own feet. Everything takes longer, from seemingly easy tasks like emptying the dishwasher to more cognitively demanding tasks like completing her homework. Her thinking becomes cloudy. She has a hard time trying to explain what she is feeling or keep track of what she is doing. These are all signs that she is living in her trauma brain. As a parent, supporting her social emotional health through trauma can be challenging and, at times, induces my own trauma state. We live with a heightened awareness of trauma in our home; however, the home is not the only places we see trauma.
Trauma is Everywhere.
As an educator, I have experienced the pleasure and the emotional demands of working with students in many different Title I schools. In one of my most challenging years, teaching fifth grade, I had a student who was suicidal, a student who was killed in a bus accident, a student whose father was dying of cancer, and a student who would run away and did so three times during the school year. I know that I am not alone in this teaching experience. We live and learn alongside our students and experience their trauma and the effects of trauma with them each day. For many of us, the love and compassion we have as educators and parents can be enough to put us into a trauma state as well. When living and working with children who are experiencing the effects of trauma, we need to pay attention to ourselves to manage any secondary trauma we might be experiencing.
Another reality we are experiencing is living during this global pandemic which means most of us are living in trauma. The factors influencing our trauma might be different: loss of a job, getting sick or knowing people who are sick or even who have passed away, rapidly transitioning to remote instruction or learning, being isolated from family and friends. The list can go on and on. During the beginning of the quarantine, I was definitely living in a trauma state. After two weeks of crying, needing a nap everyday, having difficulty focusing on my work, and being short tempered with my daughter, I realized I was exhibiting some of the same signs of being in my trauma brain that my daughter does when she is triggered.
Trauma Alters our Brains
Within all these examples of trauma, what is happening in the human brain? Trauma alters brain function. The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls the flight, fight and freeze responses which are heightened during trauma (McLaughlin, 2014). Our bodies are designed to use these functions to protect us from danger for short periods of time. When we are experiencing trauma, we stay in the flight, fight or freeze response for an extended period of time, creating shifts in how the brain operates. The amygdala is supported by the prefrontal cortex, which usually helps us understand when there is no longer a threat. During traumatic events, the prefrontal cortex is not able to recognize when the threat is no longer putting us in danger.
Trauma diminishes our capacity to learn. When the hippocampus, which controls learning and memory, becomes traumatized we see impacts in learning and memory. Trauma has been linked to the inability to remember about the surrounding environment suggesting that the hippocampus’ development can be impeded during traumatic events (McLaughlin, 2014).
Supporting Trauma Impacted Learners
One thing I have learned as a parent and educator is that in order to support my daughter and students who are in trauma is that first you need to be aware that the student is in a trauma state. Be patient with yourself and with students. Trauma does not just go away. It is somewhat like the grieving process needing time and knowing that every individual works through it at different times. Take a step back, giving simple easy to follow directions. Where you might give students three things to do to get started on a project, your student who is in a trauma state will only be able to manage one step at a time. Coach your student on executive functioning skills by creating clear organizational structures and then supporting your students in how to use the organizational structures. Routines and rituals are important to maintain; however, we all know that there are times when a routine is interrupted. As much as possible, give your students a warning about the changes to come so that they are not taken by surprise. We want to avoid increasing the feeling of not being safe and the change in a routine will heighten the amygdala’s fight, flight, or freeze reaction. Finally, create an environment where the students know they are safe. The relationship you build with students will be the factor that will help stabilize the amygdala while in the classroom.
I would like to end with a short word on you as the teacher working with students living through trauma. Second hand trauma is a real thing. Be sure you are attending to yourself and seeking out support to manage what you are feeling and experiencing. Take care of yourself! We can better care for others who are in trauma states when we are healthy.
McLaughlin, K. (2014). How can trauma affect the brain? Retrieve from https://tfcbt.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Trauma-and-the-Brain-Handout-2014.pdf
Souers, K. (2016). Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom. Alexandria: ASCD.
Post author Katrina Litzau joined PEBC as a clinical instructor for the PEBC Teacher Residency in 2016. During her time with the residency, she has also served as a field coach. Prior to joining PEBC, Katrina served students and teachers in a variety of roles over the last 16 years in public education including elementary teacher, an instructional coach in both elementary and middle schools, clinical professor, and professional learning specialist.