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"If we can design public elementary schools in high poverty locations to meet the needs of children who struggle with overwhelming stress and trauma, we can take substantial steps to improve their well-being, emotions, behavior and learning," the authors write. (Photo: alamosbasement/flickr/cc)

Does Betsy DeVos Understand the Impact of Poverty and Trauma on Children’s Learning?

Christine MasonMaud Schaafsma

Educators who look at learning from a developmental perspective know that the trauma and toxic stress associated with poverty can seriously interfere with a child’s brain development and inhibit learning.  Children who have been overwhelmed by stress or exposure to violence, and experience lack of security frequently have difficulty controlling impulsive behavior and focusing their attention on tasks at school.  While these behaviors are disruptive in classrooms – they are devastating to the children themselves.

We understand neurobiological changes that are created by childhood trauma and toxic stress – these are changes in the emotional brain circuits that enable us to respond to crises, fear and threats.  Children’s brains can be hijacked by emotions and deeply fearful responses to perceived threats. This reaction gives them less access to brain areas that support memory, focused attention, organizing information, and building positive relationships. We call these executive functions – and they are essential for learning.   

The foundation for executive functions rests with three developmental milestones— forming attachments with others, handling stress, and self-regulating emotions.  Children who form a positive attachment with a caring adult are often able to cope more effectively with stress.  A caring adult can be a buffer, reducing the negative impact of stress and aiding children as they learn to self-regulate their emotions. (see Building Blocks for Learning, TurnAround for Children, 2016.) Without that buffer, children directly experience trauma and live with greater anxiety.  Their fears and anxieties are likely to also impede their learning in school.  It’s not that they do not want to learn – but that their impulsive behavior and experiences of stress, fears and insecurities inhibit their readiness to learn.  Essentially their brains may not be fully available to them for the tasks of learning.

Seven  million children attend 18,000 public elementary schools that are located in high poverty areas.   Most children attending these schools are living in families with incomes  under 185% of federal poverty and disproportionately 31% or 2.2 million are African American (IES, NCES).  We know from CDC and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network data on children’s experiences of violence that 65% - 85% of children living in poverty experience significant trauma.  Conservatively, 4.5 million children experience some form of the obstacles to learning that we describe above.  Fortunately for these children and the schools they attend, we know that we can correct some of their interrupted brain development and contribute to healing the impacts of trauma.

This disruption in learning is a devastating problem for children and schools. But if we can design public elementary schools in high poverty locations to meet the needs of children who struggle with overwhelming stress and trauma, we can take substantial steps to improve their well-being, emotions, behavior and learning.  

To do this collectively we must first understand the harsh impacts of poverty and trauma on young children’s development and embrace our moral responsibilities to create schools that meet the real developmental and educational needs of all of our children – especially children who are poor.

Several positive initiatives are underway to improve the capacities of high poverty schools to respond to developmental needs of children.  Children’s Hospitals are involved in addressing children’s mental and physical health needs created by trauma.  Massachusetts Advocates for Children has developed a process for creating  trauma sensitive schools.  TurnAround for Children (T4C) in NYC, Newark NJ and Washington DC schools uses a system of mental health interventions for children and professional development training for teachers in the neurobiology of trauma to create “fortified learning environments” for children.  Several school programs in the US and Canada (MindUp and Roots of Empathy) address the disrupted neurobiology of trauma by introducing regular classroom practices of mindfulness, deep breathing and movement to heal trauma.  The Nigora Institute in Oakland, CA is leading this intiative in California’s Bay area schools.  The Center for Educational Improvement in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC is connecting practices of mindfulness, teachers’ understanding of neurobiology of trauma, and use of a tool to measure conscious attention to children’s emotions and compassion for their adverse experiences in school cultures,  to create more compassionate schools.  

Several of these initiatives are connected to an umbrella project developed by Ashoka Foundation in Alexandria, VA and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation in Baltimore, MD to improve the Wellbeing of Children.  These organizations together (with additional colleagues) hold out the promise to rethink what our public elementary schools in poverty areas can and should be.  We can imagine, develop the vision, motivation and resources to create schools that nurture the development of children, understand empathically their experiences of poverty and trauma and rise together to contribute to healing their mental and physical health and improve their learning.  We need to have the moral purpose and deep compassion as a society to do this for our children.  And we need a Secretary of Education who understands the impacts of poverty and trauma on children’s neural development and their abilities to learn.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Christine Mason

Christine Mason

Christine Mason is principal in the Center for Educational Improvement in Vienna, VA.  Chris has a PhD in Cognitive Psychology and 30 years of experience developing and delivering professional development curriculum for teachers.  She is a 2016 Pioneer in the Ashoka/RWJF Project on Children’s Wellbeing.  

Maud Schaafsma

Maud Schaafsma

Maud Schaafsma is a principal in ChildWorks, a Chicago educational consulting group.  Maud has a PhD in Sociology and has done research and public policy post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Chicago and in the U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee.  

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