Behavior is Biology: Understanding Essential Brain Science Behind Students’ Trauma

May 1, 2023

Educators play a crucial role in childhood development, providing them with a foundation for academic, social, and emotional skills—skills that will ultimately shape students’ future success. However, anyone who has been a teacher—or a student, for that matter—has observed that some students are more difficult to engage or seem to struggle with learning more than others.

In some cases, this may be due to a history of trauma, which can have a significant impact on the developing brain.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network states that early childhood trauma has been associated with reduced size of the brain cortex. These changes can affect IQ and the ability to regulate emotions, and the child may become more fearful and may not feel as safe or as protected.

The organization also notes that children who experience trauma between the ages of 0-6 years old generally have difficulty regulating their emotions and behaviors.

Trauma can be the reason why children may:

  • Have difficulty focusing in school
  • Develop learning disabilities
  • Have trouble making friends

And trauma can cause a child's stress hormones to overreact, leading to negative stress response behaviors that are ultimately out of the child’s control.

While few of us may have vivid memories of moments from our earliest years, our brains do remember and our “bodies keep the score”—and drive our behaviors based on those formative experiences.

Understanding the essential brain science and the impact of trauma can help educators create a safe and supportive learning environment that meets students’ unique needs and contributes to the successful implementation of trauma-informed care. 

And CPI’s 3rd Edition de-escalation training can help provide you with these necessary skills. When you understand the brain and how it reacts to trauma and difficult situations, you can better control your own reactions in order truly help a child in need.

After all, while children’s trauma can create challenges, it’s also an opportunity for hope and healing. Educators can be an important source of consistency in children’s lives, which gives us a unique opportunity to support their emotional and behavioral needs. Children learn best through experiences and guidance, not adult-imposed consequences. Until a child is regulated (feeling physically and emotionally settled), they are unlikely to have the full mental capacity to think rationally and reflect on how their behavior is affecting others.

With that, let’s take a look at some of the basics of brain science. Together, we’ll explore our brain-body connection and how understanding this can help us better support student success.

Trauma-Informed Care for Educators

This educator-specific trauma-informed care guide will give you a deeper awareness of trauma’s effects on behavior, tips for how to prevent vicarious trauma, de-escalation preferences form to use with students and colleagues, and more.


Understanding Basic Brain Anatomy

Think back for a moment to high school biology. You may recall the human brain is made up of four main sections, each with unique functions that, together, orchestrate an individual’s response to a given stimulus (say, when a teacher scolds a child, or the child receives a bad grade on an assignment).

Prefrontal cortex: The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functioning: decision-making, impulse control, problem-solving, organization and creativity—essentially, all the important qualities that affect people’s ability to learn, retain and use the information taught at school. It’s the part we, as adults, rely on to respond to situations with good judgment.

Limbic system: The limbic system is not exactly a system, but a name for the collective regions in the midbrain and lower midbrain that help us sense our inner and outer environments and can detect whether we feel safe or threatened. The limbic system has an important role in emotion, learning and memory.

Hippocampus: The hippocampus is responsible for learning, memory formation and spatial navigation. Things that make us feel unsafe—like traumatic experiences in childhood—can cause the hippocampus to shrink. This leads to difficulties when learning new information, memory problems and issues with spatial orientation.

Amygdala: The amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure located in the limbic system responsible for processing emotions from pleasure to fear or aggression. Some refer to it as a kind of “smoke detector,” that can sometimes become overactive, leading to a heightened stress response—think flight or fight.

Unlike adults, who rely on the prefrontal cortex, children (whose brains are not yet fully developed) more often rely on the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems. This is an important distinction to keep in mind as we interact with children: despite having the same components, our brains function in fundamentally different ways, depending on our stage of development—and whether we are affected by trauma while those parts of the brain begin to develop.

Brain Development: How Early Trauma Changes Us

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, promoting healthy brain development starts during— and even before—pregnancy. As a fetus begins to grow, the brain can be affected by many risks including infectious disease, exposure to toxins (like smoking and alcohol) or when mothers themselves experience stress, trauma or mental health conditions.

After we are born, our brain develops rapidly—and does not finish developing until we’re about 25 to 30 years old. Brain development also occurs from back to front, and bottom to top, meaning that the prefrontal cortex (the part responsible for rational decision-making) is the last part of our brain to fully develop. But it’s a long journey to get there—what happens within that time can have a profound impact on our thought processing by the time our brains have fully matured.

Infants’ and children’s brains are primed to learn, exhibiting a high level of neuroplasticity, meaning a high adaptability to change. It’s a quality that helps them learn new things and enhance their cognitive capabilities—but it also makes them more susceptible to negative adaptations if they experience trauma.

Neurons are the wiring within the brain and nervous system; the cells responsible for receiving sensory information from the outside world and helping us make sense of it. Within the first three years of life, myelination (or the coating of our nervous systems’ neurons with myelin) begins to greatly increase the speed of signals transmitted between neurons. Humans experience perhaps the most profound neurological changes during this stage of life, developing around one million neural connections per second.

When children are still in the foundational stages of growth, these connections—the way they initially begin to learn about the world—are based on relational experiences. Whether these experiences are nurturing or toxic can shape their perspective and their reactions for the rest of their lives.

Children who are loved and cared for—and who feel safe within their environments—are much more likely to thrive in their developmental years, positively changing their trajectory through adolescence and into adulthood. Inversely, children who experience insecurity, fear or trauma are negatively affected.

Understanding Biology Can Change the Way We Address Behavior

In a previous blog, we stated that embodied memories are observed as behavioral impulses, which can be triggered by sensory stimuli we (or the children in our classrooms) experience in a given moment. Examples of such stimuli could include smells or sounds in a given environment that hearken back to a stressful or traumatic experience from early childhood.

When these core memories are triggered in a classroom, students may be overcome by strong emotions, reacting immediately, driven by the amygdala’s survival mechanism. This phenomenon is referred to as amygdala hijack, or emotional dysregulation.

In low stress situations, information is sent to the prefrontal cortex (the rational part of our brain) for processing. This allows us to calm the amygdala with reason. In high stress situations—or situations in which we’re triggered by our unconscious trauma—blood and oxygen, along with the triggering stimulus, bypass our prefrontal cortex and instead travel straight to the amygdala (our emotional brain), causing an emotionally driven survival response.

While this is a natural part of our “fight or flight” response, it’s not well-received in learning environments, leading to disruptions for teachers and students alike. But as the adults in the classroom, it’s important for educators to recognize the biological foundations of such behaviors—and use that understanding to inform our response. In these difficult moments, when a child becomes dysregulated it is critical for the adult to maintain regulation. It takes a well-regulated adult to help a dysregulated child.

CPI’s de-escalation training supports educators by helping them understand the signs, symptoms, and potential reasons behind why a student might be experiencing an amygdala hijack. CPI training also shows educators what is happening in their own minds during difficult moments like this to help them keep calm and in control of their rational brain. By focusing on what the educator can control—their own emotional response—they are better able to offer effective support. This helps the student regain calm and reach a state of tension reduction.

Using trauma-informed teaching practices that use safety as the antidote to stress responses allows us to break the punitive trauma cycle which occurs when we punish students for the behaviors that stem from trauma—and thus lead to retraumatization.

How We Best Move Forward, Together

By incorporating basic conversations about brain science in the classroom, together teachers and students can learn to understand their emotional responses and feelings, while learning the best methods to use to regain self-control when working through a difficult situation. When we understand, as adults, how the brain's biology and how our own experiences affect our behavior and trigger our emotional responses, we can regulate ourselves and focus fully on helping de-escalate the student's emotional response.

In doing so, we help ourselves and the next generation have a better understanding of the brain-body connection to succeed in school and in life.

Dr. Lori Desautels is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Lori was also an assistant professor at Marian University in Indianapolis, where she founded the Educational Neuroscience Symposium, now sponsored by Butler University. Lori has created webinars for educators, clinicians, and administrators illustrating how educators and students alike must understand their neuroanatomy to regulate behavior and calm the brain. You can learn more about her work at Revelations In Education.

Guy Stephens is the founder and executive director of the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint (AASR), a nonprofit he started in 2019. AASR is a community of over 25,000 parents, self-advocates, teachers, school administrators, paraprofessionals, attorneys, related service providers, and others working together to influence change in supporting children whose behaviors are often misunderstood. Guy Stephens is a national expert on the issue of restraint and seclusion. He has presented at conferences and events across North America and guest lectures for undergraduate and graduate courses.

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