"Ultimately, what determines how children survive trauma, physically, emotionally, or psychologically, is whether the people around them-particularly the adults they should be able to trust and rely upon-stand by them with love, support and encouragement." - Dr. Bruce Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog.
The brain is organized sequentially. The brain is a complex organ which up until recently was not well understood. The last 20 years has seen an amazing advancements in our understanding about the brain and the impact of trauma on its development. It is helpful to think of the brain as an organ which develops sequentially from the lower part of the brain to the top of the brain. The top of the brain called the cortex is the part that educators (teachers, parents, caring adults) help children develop. It is where complex thinking, problem solving, categorizing and dozens of other sophisticated skills occur. The most rapid part of the brain's lower development will occur in utero and then within the first four years of life. Below the cortex is the limbic system which is responsible for navigating relationships. Below the limbic system is the midbrain (diencephalon) which mediates balance and coordination. Below the midbrain is the brainstem which mediates all autonomic functioning such as breathing, heart rate, perspiration among other critical functions.
Early development determines a child's outlook on the world and learning. By the time a child enters kindergarten, they will have developed an established template in the brain for the rest of their lives. Some children will develop templates which tell them the world is a safe and exciting place. This will encourage the development of relationships and a curiosity about the world and learning. Other children will develop templates that will tell them that the world is a scary and unpredictable place. This child may find it difficult to develop relationships and may find learning challenging. These templates impact basic stress levels and autonomic functioning and can even impact their sense of balance and coordination as well as their relationships with others.
Get to the cortex! Our job as educators is to help children access their cortex where learning takes place. Because all areas of the brain are connected it is important to recognize when children are having challenges regulating stress (brain stem), meeting their body's need for movement (midbrain) or managing relationships (limbic system). If the teacher can successfully help children take care of these areas, the child will more fully be able to access the cortex, where learning and problem solving skills can be developed. If the teacher can not help them in these areas, the child's brain will be stuck in that area and the child will not be able to fully access the cortex. This concept is described in part by the ChildTrauma Academy as State Dependent Functioning.
Traumatized children may have higher or lower heart rates, poor sleeping patterns or digestive issues. Breathing can help clam the brain stem and has been demonstrated to have lasting physical and mental health benefits. Any intervention to help students calm down can be effective for their learning. One way is to lead the class in a 2, 5 or 10 minute square breathing break. Another intervention is to play Baroque music which has a frequency that is calming for most people.
Click on these video links which you can use with your students.
The Midbrain is a portion of the central nervous systemassociated with vision, hearing, motor control, sleep/wake, arousal (alertness), and temperature regulation. (Adapted from Wikipedia - click on this link for full page)
The midbrain helps with balance and coordination. It becomes well regulated with movement. Long periods of inactivity can cause stress and students may appear restless and fidgety in class. Simple movement like stretching or a physical brain break can help students become more focused and engaged in the rest of the day's lesson. If you add rhythmic activities you can also help you students strengthen this part of the brain.
Offering non-disruptive fidgets such as play dough, pipe cleaners, or tactile objects that are quiet for students. Although fidgets appear like they would distract someone from learning, they actually have been demonstrated to help students and staff improve focus and attention.
Click on this video links to learn some other techniques for keeping students active and reenergized for your lesson:
Stretching - Quick Classroom Exercises to Make Learning Lively
Fidgets- Using Fidget and Stress Toys to Enhance Meetings and Learning
The limbic system supports a variety of functions including emotion, behavior, motivation and long-term memory. Emotional life is largely housed in the limbic system, and it has a great deal to do with the formation of memories and learning. (Adapted from Wikipedia - click on this link for full page)
Students learn best when there is a positive relational and emotional connection to the teacher, the classroom and the lesson. Research collected by the AVID Institute demonstrates that teachers are most effective when they know how students feel about classroom material, not just what they think about it.. A student experiencing strong negative emotions such as hurt, resentment or fear may not be able to access the Cortex, where dynamic learning, creativity and higher learning skills develop.
Two easy interventions that will dramatically improve your effectiveness as a teacher are greeting students at the door and providing praise targeting specific behavior individually to students and to the classroom. Praising general disposition or characteristics such as hard working, good attitude and personality are not shown to be effective and can cause anxiety as youth may feel unsure about how to replicate the behavior you are reinforcing.
Click on these video links to learn some other techniques for engaging students:
Restorative Circles - How restorative circles can increase learning, and the importance of connection and student voice.
The Cortex, Air Traffic Control
The cortex is the part of the brain that can change and develop most rapidly, also known as "plasticity." The cortex is responsible for basic cognitive processes such as attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Higher order executive functions require the simultaneous use of multiple basic executive functions. (Adapted from Wikipedia - click on this link for full page).
Executive functioning within the cortex can be thought of as the air traffic control center for the many brain functions within the cortex and other parts of the brain.
Click on the video links to learn more about the cortex and executive functioning skills and strategies:
The brain learns from the bottom up - Information must pass up through the brain stem and then the limbic system in order to get to the cortex where the information can be processed using advanced executive functioning. Any disruption in the brain stem or limbic system will not allow the information to flow to the cortex. Anxiety, hunger, sleep deprivation, poor emotional or relational connection all impact learning.
The brain teaches from the top down - Information that a teacher provides must move down from the cortex to the limbic system and through the brain stem. It is important for teachers to be well regulated themselves in order to pass the information along to the student in a way that they can understand.
Emotional dysregulation in the teacher and/or student impedes learning.
Negative redirection is dysregulating if it occurs unexpectedly or often or when the student is already dysregulated.
Unmet basic needs such as food, shelter and emotional connection to others is dysregulating and impedes learning,
The brain is use-dependent - The parts of the brain that gets used gets developed. Parts of the brain that do not get used can degenerate.
The cortex needs regular breaks to be efficient - Sensory, enjoyable and regulating activities which use the brain stem and limbic system can be used to help students recover efficient use of the cortex.
Using Bruce Perry's six R's of Trauma-Informed Care Traumatized and non traumatized students learn best in environments that are