The science behind trauma-informed education

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Trauma-informed care “shifts the way you look at human problems from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’ and ‘how can we help?’” says Sandra L. Bloom, an associate professor of public health at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Much of the research into trauma is based on the landmark 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences study.

Adverse childhood experiences can range from experiencing sexual abuse and violence to witnessing violence or living with someone who is a substance abuser or mentally ill.

In a school, childhood trauma can often be a factor in poor academic performance and/or behavior problems and a lack of self-control.

Lakeside follows what is called the neurosequential model for dealing with trauma and how it affects learning in the classroom.

The approach, developed by psychiatrist Bruce Perry of the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, essentially divides brain function into four areas:

  • The brainstem, which controls involuntary functions such as blood pressure and heart rate.
  • The midbrain, which controls functions such as motor skills, appetite, and sleep.
  • The limbic system, which controls relationships, sexual behavior, and emotional reactivity.
  • And the cortex, which controls abstract and concrete thought.

As explained by Josh MacNeill, Lakeside’s director of the NeuroLogic Initiative, a student who’s suffering from long-term or recent trauma may be operating mostly from his or her limbic system. For learning to take place, the student needs to be calmly guided into using the cortex.

A child who is extremely fidgety might, in effect, be stuck in the midbrain.

“When it comes to interventions, you start with the brain stem and work your way up,” says Kathy Van Horn, Lakeside’s executive vice president.

And although no intervention will work for all students, she says, none is harmful. And it’s not necessary to know exactly why a particular student is traumatized.

To deal with an immediate classroom situation, she says, “You don’t need to figure out what happened. You just have to assume that something happened.

“There are things that kind of point you in the right direction.”

This series is made possible by funding from the Van Ameringen Foundation and the Reentry Project.