If you were to ask any psychologist how they would define trauma, you would likely find many, many different answers from that provided by the APA. In a comprehensive series of articles written by Dr. Jamie Marich, “…trauma may also occur from exposure to a series of traumatizing experiences, such as growing up in a violent or alcoholic home where there are too many "events" to even name. The best public health term to refer to this definition of trauma would be: chronic, repeated exposure to conditions that serve to degenerate a person’s well-being. (Available at: http://www.eastcentralmhc.org/109-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/article/55724-what-are-trauma-and-stressor-related-disorder as well as http://www.drjamiemarich.com)
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s is one of the world's leading trauma scholars and has authored the book: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014). He describes trauma as something:
"…unbearable and intolerable” whose victims become “…so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability."
SCHOOL TRAUMA. What comes to mind? School shootings, bomb scares, and bullying? Maybe. Or, maybe not? Think back to your own experience. Do you have a memory of something traumatic happening to you while at school? I have found from my work with educators that we all have at least one memory from our K-12 experience that has left a permanent scar due to feelings of ‘shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.’
If we were to apply both definitions of trauma to a school setting, it would be safe to say that there are numerous opportunities just within the walls of a schoolhouse, every day for students to experience both acute and chronic trauma. Never mind the exposure students potentially experience in “real life.” And, given that trauma is not only experienced by those directly involved in an incident and it can impact witnesses as well, it has far reaching implications for teaching and learning at all grade levels.
Sources of acute trauma in a school are easy to recognize. Obviously, things like interpersonal aggression, harassment, or bullying are an ever present source of acute trauma to individual students or witnesses of it. In addition, there are other things that are unique to an individual student like getting cut from a team, not getting a part in a play, or failing a ‘big’ test that could be labeled as being traumatic by the student.
On any given day, a student can feel as though they are not liked, unwelcome, or ostracized. The very nature of schooling is judgmental and fraught with fear. After all, in our society, doing well at school equates with future success. Students may worry about what will happen to them if they fail. Others may avoid the opportunity all together! Now, let’s add the numerous social dynamics and the pressures they impose on students and compound it with social media. The ‘no longer imaginary’ audience is ever-present in the minds of an adolescent! Could the nature of school itself be a source of chronic trauma to some students? Could this interfere with a student’s ability to learn? Answer: absolutely.
Given that it is natural to feel afraid before, during, and after a traumatic event, the role of fear is critical when exploring how trauma impacts a student’s ability to learn. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger, to avoid it, or escape from it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a physiological reaction that has evolved in humans to ensure survival and protect a person from harm. What is critical to realize is that the body cannot differentiate between an actual source of stress or a perceived one. The body reacts the same to even an imaginary or fictional stressor: the fight or flight response.
It is the fight or flight response that is the main reason students experiencing either acute or chronic trauma cannot learn as well as their healthier counterparts. According to Dr. Jane Bluestein, “…the brain’s main job is prioritizing information relevant to our survival. Anything that suggests the possibility of danger, whether real or imagined, becomes a higher priority than anything else that is going on at that moment. This data is processed first, shifting our attention from cognitive processes down to the faster-acting limbic system, while more complex cerebral operations shut down. Survival always overrides problem-solving, analyzing, remembering, pattern-detection and other rational processes.”
The bottom line: one cannot learn while in survival mode. There is a great fact-sheet about how stress influences brain function as it relates to life in the classroom available at: http://janebluestein.com/2013/stress-and-the-brain/.