The 14 Secrets to Recognize and Repair a Student’s “Broken” Emotional Brain

  • brain-based-strategy

An instructional coach emailed me with a problem. Well, actually it was MANY PROBLEMS that the staff had at school. Discipline problems were out of control and the teachers were going nuts. It is the emotions at school that run the class climate.

You might care about this because of several recent studies which are simply mind-boggling in their scope and results.

The Research

It is becoming more and more about trauma in the school. First, there was bullying, then the shootings, then poison in the water supply and the air students breathe, and of course, the lock-downs and drills.

Here’s the bottom line up front: if you do not understand how vulnerable the emotional brain is, you’ll become jaded and lack empathy. While many of your school’s discipline issues are very simple to fix, the lasting, tougher problems may involve trauma. How often do students get traumatized?

Dr. Bruce Perry estimates the number of students experiencing trauma is greater than 25%. Does that seem high to you?

While full-blown PTSD is somewhat rare, other forms of trauma such as school problems, physical and sexual abuse at home, sexual identity issues, emotional difficulties, divorce, bullying, and physical issues—occur commonly.

The rate of occurrence of a single trauma is greater than 20% among school-age children. Yet many have experienced multiple traumatic events and the rate among school-age children is growing.

In one urban system’s elementary and middle schools, almost one third of the students had witnessed a stabbing or shooting in the last year.

In a large survey, almost half of urban secondary students reported witnessing a stabbing or shooting in the past year.

Add to those trauma exposures the impact of home life. As you might predict, study results show that the child’s emotional regulation problems were associated with both the posttraumatic symptoms and also with mom. When mom is struggling, the kids often struggle with self-regulation and healing.

The Pathways

When a child is threatened, various neurophysiological and neuroendocrine responses begin. If the trauma persists, there will be three to five “use-dependent” alterations in the key neural systems involved in the stress response.

The primary change is in the stress system. Chronic activation of the body’s system in response to stress has negative consequences. Chronic activation may damage the hippocampus, a key area involved in memory, cognition, and arousal. Chronic or acute stress evokes “allostasis,” which depletes the brain and body of energy.

The brain may become sensitized by repetitive bad experiences following traumatic stress. The result is a cascade of changes in attention, impulse control, sleep, fine motor control, and other functions mediated by the catecholamines (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine).

As a result, the traumatized child may display hyperactivity, anxiety, poor memory, behavioral impulsivity, anger, sleep problems, tachycardia, and hypertension. Many teachers will misread those behaviors and label the student lazy, AD/HD, or a discipline problem. Nope; those symptoms are well-documented symptoms of stress disorders.

Remember, all experiences change the brain—yet not all experiences have equal “impact” on the brain.

Both traumatic experiences and therapeutic experiences impact the same brain, and each are limited and managed by the same principles of neurophysiology.

Traumatic events impact the multiple areas of the brain that respond to the threat. In order to heal (i.e., alter or modify trauma), therapeutic interventions must activate those portions of the brain that have been altered by the trauma. Understanding the persistence of fear-related emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and physiological patterns can lead to focused therapeutic experiences that modify those parts of the brain impacted by trauma.

Practical Applications

If you would like to have a more effective school that focuses on safety, learning, and growth, then you may be interested in the following solutions. Before we jump into these, here’s a reminder. While classroom teachers can and should provide a good environment for students, remember that a counselor or therapist can guide you best and should be your first resource.

1. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral, attachment, humanistic, empowerment, and family therapy models.

2. Alter self-concept through gratitude interventions. These outperformed an alternative-activity condition on measures of gratitude with an above-average effect size of 0.46 (Davis, et al., 2015).

3. Involve parents. Parents have key information about their child that therapists need in developing and implementing treatment. Most important, parents can create the stable, consistent, and caring environment in which the child can learn that a traumatic experience doesn’t have to dominate life.

Give parents a simple “take-home” for the first month (like ‘how to de-escalate conflict’). The second month, they can learn to ask more curiosity questions and use a greater vocabulary. The third month, they can learn to give their children more sense of control at home and allow them to make choices.

4. Teaching children stress management and relaxation skills to help them cope with unpleasant feelings and physical sensations about the trauma. These can be fluid movements, purposeful breathing, and tighten and release of muscle groups.

5. Creating a newer, more useful and coherent “narrative” or story of what happened. It is often a difficult process for children to reach the point where they are able to tell the story of a traumatic event; but when they are ready, the re-telling enables them to master painful feelings about the event and to resolve the impact the event has on their lives.

6. Allow students the safety, privacy, and time to discuss the trauma. This can validate that it happened, that an adult can be safe, and that an adult cares. Don’t bring it up on your own, but when the child brings it up. Don’t avoid discussion: listen to the child, answer questions, provide comfort and support. We may have no good verbal explanations, but listening (not avoiding or overreacting to the subject) and then comforting the child will have a critical and long-lasting positive effect.

7. Goal setting with drawing. A different study used positive psychological interventions for children: a comparison of gratitude and best-possible selves approaches. Students articulated these through drawings. The participants drawing the “best-possible selves” condition showed greater gains in self-concept than those in the other conditions (Owens & Patterson, 2013).

8. When students talk about trauma, a therapist can help correct untrue or distorted ideas about what happened and why. Children sometimes think something they did, or didn’t do, may have caused the trauma, or that if only they had acted a certain way a traumatic experience might have turned out differently. This is rarely true, and getting the story right helps a child stop prolonging the traumatic stress by punishing him- or herself.

Changing unhealthy and wrong views that have resulted from the trauma promotes healing. Children often need help to overcome such ideas as “If he did that bad thing to me it must be because I’m bad.” or “Children like me can never have a normal life again.”

9. Don’t be afraid to talk about the traumatic event. Children do not benefit from “not thinking about it” or “putting it out of their minds”. If a child senses that his/her caretakers are upset about the event, they will not bring it up. In the long run, this only makes the child’s recovery more difficult.

10. Lower school stress with daily rituals. Provide a consistent, predictable pattern for the day. Make sure the child knows the pattern. When the day includes new or different activities, tell the child beforehand and explain why this day’s pattern is different. Don’t underestimate how important it is for children to know that their caretakers are “in control”.

11. Discuss your expectations for behavior and your “style of discipline” with the child. Make sure that there are clear rules, and consequences for breaking the rules. Make sure that both you and the child understand beforehand the specific consequences for compliant and non-compliant behaviors. Be consistent when applying consequences. Use flexibility in consequences to illustrate reason and understanding. Utilize positive reinforcement and rewards. Avoid physical discipline.

12. Protect the child. Do not hesitate to cut short or stop activities which are upsetting or re-traumatizing for the child. If you observe increased symptoms in a child that occur in a certain situation or following exposure to certain movies, activities, and so forth, avoid these activities. Try to restructure or limit activities that cause escalation of symptoms in the traumatized child.

13. Watch closely for signs of re-enactment (e.g., in play, drawing, behaviors), avoidance (e.g., being withdrawn, daydreaming, avoiding other children) and physiological hyper-reactivity (e.g., anxiety, sleep problems, behavioral impulsivity). All traumatized children exhibit some combination of these symptoms in the acute post-traumatic period.

Many exhibit these symptoms for years after the traumatic event. When you see these symptoms, it is likely that the child has had some reminder of the event, either through thoughts or experiences. Try to comfort and be tolerant of the child’s emotional and behavioral problems. These symptoms will wax and wane, sometimes for no apparent reason. The best thing you can do is to keep some record of the behaviors and emotions you observe (keep a diary) and try to observe patterns in the behavior.

14. Give the child “choices” and some sense of control. When a child, particularly a traumatized child, feels that they do not have control of a situation, they will predictably get more symptomatic.

If a child is given some choice or some element of control in an activity or in an interaction with an adult, they will feel more safe, more comfortable, and will be able to feel, think, and act in a more “mature” fashion.

When a child is having difficulty with compliance, frame the “consequence” as a choice for them: “You have a choice: you can choose to do what I have asked or you can choose to _______, which you know is going to ___ (‘get you in trouble’, or ‘hurt your grade’ or …)

Again, this simple framing of the interaction with the child gives them some sense of control and can help defuse situations where the child feels out of control and therefore, anxious.

If you have questions, get help from a counselor or therapist.

Your partner in learning,

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

Leave a Reply