“Every time a child is saved from the dark side of life, every time one of us makes the effort to make a difference in a child’s life, we add light and healing to our own lives.” — Oprah Winfrey
Childhood trauma isn’t something kids just get over as they grow up. The repeated stress of abuse, neglect, and being raised by parents who struggle with mental health issues or substance abuse has real, tangible effects on the development of the brain. This unfolds across a lifetime, to the point where those who have experienced high levels of trauma are at triple the risk for physical health problems (Nadine Burke Harris 2014).
When children come home to violence, abuse, neglect, or trauma on a regular basis, stress hormones are released and flood their tiny bodies, causing them to involuntarily put themselves into a fight or flight response to the situation. This would be a good and normal defense mechanism for dealing with infrequent dangerous situations. Imagine being confronted with an angry bear, for example. That fight or flight response helps us to survive, But the problem is what happens to a child when that bear comes home every night, over and over, requiring the stress hormones to flood their systems, causing a toxic response. The human body is not equipped for this.
And from a neurological perspective, the repeated exposure to adversity negatively affects the brains of developing children, the immune system, and ultimately creates disease. Each instance creates and then strengthens neural pathways and behavioral patterns. These factors, when combined, inhibit impulse control, which is an executive and critical area for learning. For kids who endure chronic stress, they find it extremely challenging — and sometimes impossible — to focus on something. It is therefore extremely challenging to teach them.
Children who encounter daily stress do not learn the same way as other students who have little to no stress. It’s not that they can’t learn; it’s just that there are often too many barriers for teachers to get through in order to reach them. The threats that some of our students face each day are too severe and pervasive to both ignore and to challenge while trying to get through to them within the classroom setting. This is the teacher’s bear to fight, as well as the child’s.
But here’s the silver lining that really amazes me: Research shows that just one positive relationship in early childhood leads to significantly better outcomes, and builds resiliency within a person’s life that they carry with them through adulthood. This positive relationship could definitely be — and quite often is — a teacher.
These students of mine, who I’ve described above, leave me in 6th grade to go on to the next school. I see their traumas as they experience them and what effect they have on them as children. I rarely get to interact with them as adults. But my husband was one of those kids. He experienced the same type of adversity as a child, coming from trauma and abuse. He spent most of his childhood running from the bear. When I ask him what teacher or adult made an impact with him as a child, he responds with, “No one. I was invisible.”
As an adult, my husband carries those scars of his childhood. I see the connection between some of my students’ dysfunctional, abusive, traumatic childhoods and my husband’s. How different are they, really? I see my students as children in the thick of it, going through what my husband endured in his own past. Watching my husband struggle with his demons as an adult sheds a little light on what my students may have to deal with in their futures. I wish my husband could have had caring teachers to guide him through his nightmares when he needed shelter from his storm of a childhood.
I’m a California educator in a low socioeconomic area, that seems to be a magnet for adversity. This is my call to fellow California teachers, educators all over the nation, and childcare workers alike. It’s crucial for us to be both empathetic and mindful of our students’ situations, and to be aware of whatever may be happening at home. And it’s actually not required to know everything that a child may or may not be going through. If we can commit to being truly present, kind, and encouraging to each child with whom we have the opportunity to work, we can have a greater impact while building relationships and reducing stress in the classroom.
While I — along with the countless others who teach in communities such as the one where I teach — accept the difficult situations that come along with our job, I feel compelled to share these stories with others — readers like you — so that you know what goes on, within the education community. Because maybe you too can help and become part of the solution. One kind, tender interaction can make a world of difference in the life of a child.