Our Nervous Systems and Trauma-Informed Teaching

July 13, 2021
Group of students working together

As we reflect upon our current educational landscape and the social and emotional implications of the pandemic over the past 18+ months, we are already seeing the critical impact of this collective trauma on so many of our students, educators, and families.

Elevated levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidal ideation were reported by adults in the United States in June 2020. The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%; CDC), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%; CDC). Children and teens react, in part, on what they see from the adults around them.

Yet, a collective crisis can create an opportunity to rethink and reimagine how trauma-informed teaching can help us approach the social, emotional, and cognitive health of our youth. Unfortunately, many school districts and policy leaders around the country are already addressing the “learning loss” as one of our greatest challenges in the 2021/2022 academic year.

There is no doubt that learning has been lost, but at the root of this loss, is the fragile and wavering emotional and mental health of our children and youth. In the young brain and body, the nervous system is developing at unprecedented rates while survival responses and emotional reactivity are elevated! Along with brain states of survival, the emergent nervous system embraces heightened emotional reactions that prioritize threat and safety over learning. The pandemic is and has been a continual threat to our country and world’s collective nervous systems which biologically shuts down accessibility in the frontal cortex for felt safety and ease of connection with another. I have also been thinking about the palatable communal nervous system states in schools. Which schools are functioning in fight/flight states where there is ramped up emotional reactivity? Which schools feel a significant loss of energy, purpose, and are hanging by a thread of hope?

Stress response in adults

As author and therapist Resmaa Menakem shares, “Settled adult bodies produce settled bodies of children and youth.” Put another way, human beings are contagious!

Our physiological states are inherently social, affecting everything we sense, feel, do, and experience within our internal and external environments. This is true for all adults, but the brain development of children and youth is constantly being shaped by experiences with others and the perceptions of those experiences and environments. The chronic behavioral challenges from many of our students are often communicating nervous system pathways functioning in sensitized threat and survival states. Our educators have also felt and experienced tremendous anxiety and an immobilized and collapsed nervous system state when our brains and bodies feel overwhelmed with the chronic unpredictability over this past year within our current system. What does this mean for the upcoming school years?

One of our priorities for this upcoming year is trauma-informed teaching with a heavy focus on connection—to care deeply for one another in our buildings, classrooms, and districts. We must also prioritize sensory regulation over cognition! When a nervous system feels safe and felt, pathways to the cortex open and generate access to the executive functions and cognitive skills we need to be academically successful. As I listen to educators across the country and world, social and emotional development does not occur through purchased programs or 30 minutes of an SEL lesson pushed into the day. When we use trauma-informed teaching to create environments that embrace social and racial equity, cue safety and connection, and are aligned with the application of nervous system science and health, we see learning gaps lessen and well-being deepen for staff and students. It is a start, but it is not enough to only ask, “What happened to you?” We need to follow this question with, “What do you need? How can we work through this together?” “I will meet you where you are!”

Our nervous systems need each other, and we will need to prioritize frequent check-ins with our students. We refer to these as “touchpoints” within the framework of applied educational neuroscience, as these micro-moments of connection can strengthen a sense of autonomy while validating and noticing what is going right and well! Our adolescents will need these touchpoints as much if not more than our younger students as their brain and body development is moving through a heightened pruning and proliferation of synaptic connections in the brain preparing for efficiency and specialization during the adolescent years and through young adulthood.

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.

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