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Control, Predictability Can Help Counter Students' Trauma, Research Finds

Los Angeles

Interventions that help students think flexibly and feel more control over their learning may help counter the effects of disadvantage and trauma, suggests emerging research at the International Mind-Brain Education conference here.

More than 1 in 3 U.S. children have experienced at least one major trauma—from abuse or neglect to the loss of a family member to death, prison, or drugs—by the time they enter kindergarten. By the end of their school years, nearly half have had at least one adverse experience. Children who have experienced such trauma are more likely to struggle academically, disengage from school, or show behavioral problems. Sarah Enos Watamura, an associate professor at the University of Denver who studies the effects of stress on learning, argues that schools can better support these children by understanding how problematic behaviors evolve, and how to help children protect themselves in healthier ways than they do now.

"There's no 'good brain' and 'broken brain.' Kids are building brains and bodies that adapt to the circumstances they are in," Watamura said. "It's important to think about because if you're trying to fix something that's broken, or had been built incorrectly in the first place, your strategy would be different than if you're trying to re-adapt the brain to a different set of constraints."

For example, neuroscience studies have shown students who have been abused or exposed to violence in their family or neighborhood are more likely to view neutral situations as threatening. In school, this might mean the student is more likely to get into fights or to melt down in response to relatively mild criticism, but in a dangerous or abusive environment, reacting strongly to a potential threat may help children stay safe. Watamura argued that interventions that try to change students' behavior without changing or taking into account their environment are less likely to show long-term results.

Flexible Thinking 

Similarly, she pointed to follow-up versions of the often-cited "marshmallow test," which suggested that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely to delay gratification, preferring to eat one treat immediately rather than holding out for twice the reward later. "We say the child has poor delay of gratification, poor executive function, if they eat that marshmallow and don't wait for the second one," Watamura said, "but if you have been in an environment where adults are not always trustworthy—either because they're not very nice or because they can't control their access to resources—you eat the marshmallow you have, and that's not irrational or maladaptive."

For example, in an ongoing project with Head Start parents and children, Watamura and her colleagues found that school interventions that also teach parents how to buffer their children against the effects of toxic stress led to greater resilience and better outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Her own and other research suggests early trauma can lead children to develop less cognitive flexibility, making it more difficult to adapt their behavior to the "low adversity" environments in a school. Interventions focused on helping students feel more autonomy in their decisions—such as programs to help develop a growth mindset—and those that increase students' feeling of agency or autonomy in school tasks, can also help students who have experienced trauma stay more flexible in their thinking.

"What we really need to think about ... is this balance between having the right amount of challenge and stimulation that's not overwhelming, with enough support for that child and that family to optimize outcomes," she said. "You can work on all those systems at the same time."

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