This is the second article in the Trauma Informed series written by Darby Munroe, Ph.D. student from Nova Southeastern University.
Learning, Behavior, and School Conflict issues can be tied to ACEs
Adverse Childhood Experiences can cause learning, behavioral, and school-based conflict issues. Using ACEs as a lens, and not a label, can help administrators, teachers, and peer mediators a filter through which to see common school problems in a different way. Knowing how the trauma of ACEs can affect the brain should be a starting point for instruction, classroom management, and school wide disciplinary procedures.
What fight, flight, or freeze looks like in the classroom
The body can respond differently to trauma. Reactions that were once were survival mechanisms can now happen in situations that are not always related to life and death. Common reactions that can occur are fight, flight and freeze. The fight reaction, in a life or death situation, might look like standing up to an attacking wild animal, ready to physically battle it out in order to survive. The fight reaction might be the most well known in a classroom. This may look like a defiant student who gets in physical fights, talks or yells back, is aggressive or argumentative, or hyperactive. These are the students who get the most referrals, who get sent to the office the most, and who get in the most trouble. However, the other two reactions also deserve to be noted.
The flight response, in a life or death situation, would look like running away from an attacking wild animal, in order to survive. Teachers may recognize this in students who abscond from class, with or without a hall pass. While some students might leave without permission, others may ask to go to the bathroom a lot, or to the office, in order to evade a lesson or activity. There might be a student that is habitually late or truant, from one or two classes, or all of them. Some students might be totally disengaged in class, listening to music, looking at their devices, talking to others, drawing, or even sleeping. Some students might try to hide under hats or hoodies in order to feel safe.
The last reaction is the freeze response. In a life or death situation, the freeze response would look like standing very still or playing dead until an attacking wild animal lost interest and walks away. Opossums are famous for this. In the classroom, this is going to look like the student that has checked out. They might be there physically, but their mind is somewhere else. The student could be in a dissociative state. Think about students that have blank looks and stares, who aren’t responsive.
Out of these three reactions students can have related to trauma and ACEs, teachers might be most familiar with the fight response because it causes the most distracting behavioral issues. But flight and freeze are also problematic, especially from a learning perspective. If students are triggered and stuck in any of these reaction states, it will be hard for them to learn.
The different parts of the brain and what they do
Humans have a triune brain, made up of three main parts, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the pre-frontal cortex. The base of the brain, or the reptilian brain (lizard brain), the brain stem, is called the hippocampus. Lizards, small reptiles, have a small brain that is basically all brain stem. Lizards are concerned with survival. They eat and dodge harm. The hippocampus in humans is also responsible for survival. When a child, or someone of any age, experiences trauma, the hippocampus goes into survival mode. This is where fight, flight, or freeze kick in, until the person starts to feel safe again. If stuck in survival mode, the other areas of the brain might be inaccessible. The brain stem cannot process and execute higher level functioning and thinking that are required for learning from and participating in a lesson. It is however good at survival, but in a classroom that might translate into an unruly student that can’t be controlled by normal classroom commands. If teachers and administrators can recognize a student is in fight, flight or freeze mode, they might be able to see regular tactics won’t work until the student feels safe. The body is having a physical reaction to fear.
The amygdala is kind of in the middle of the brain. It sends all sorts of signals out to the body, especially in stressful situations. It is like the precursor to going into survival mode. Imagine a child that experiences a lot of yelling and screaming at home. That student might be extra sensitive to noise and tone of voice. If a teacher raises his or her voice in order to get the classes attention, that student’s amygdala is going to start pumping hormones into the body, causing a fight, flight or freeze response. The amygdala is super sensitive to threats, or even potential threats, like the teacher’s tone of voice, if that is something the student has had a scary, but unrelated, experience with in the past.
The pre-frontal cortex is the front portion of the brain (think about the area behind the forehead). This is where all of the classroom activity learning happens. This is where there is higher order thinking, use of words and vocabulary, the ability to problem solve and function. If a student is not participating in class, can’t seem to explain why, or is in fight, flight or freeze mode, that student is not able to access and utilize the pre-frontal cortex. Instead of administration and teachers looking at students who are stuck in fight, flight and freeze mode as problems, they could be looking for ways to help all children feel safe at school (not just physically safe). If a child is shut down or being problematic, view the situation through an ACEs lens, and understand the child is operating out of a different part of the brain than what is required for optimal learning.
Physical and brain-based responses can cause conflict at school
Dr. Dan Siegel, a neuroscientist, developed the hand model of the brain to help people understand how the brain functions. The wrist area represents the hippocampus. Folding the thumb into the palm represents the amygdala. The other four fingers folded over the thumb represent the pre-frontal cortex. When the brain is operating as it should, it is called the wise mind. However, when triggered, students might flip their lid. Imagine all four fingers opened up, revealing the amygdala and hippocampus. It is reminiscent of the little teapot song, where it loses its lid when it gets all steamed up, shouting.
Knowing most fights are reactions to things happening in the brain, schools can use a brain-based approach towards handling conflict. Learning about ACEs and using a trauma lens to understand how students are struggling can reshape school policies on discipline and consequences. Peer mediation and restorative justice practices, when implemented properly and accepted and embraced on a school wide level, can be a large part of the solution to reduce and prevent conflict through reliance building relationships.