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Change The Brain, Not the Child

By Andrea De Bartolo, CEI Intern

The Trauma in Schools Podcast series has once again been a fascinating listen with an episode on neuroscience with Dr. Melissa Hughes. As a neuroscience researcher and educator, Dr. Hughes has a wealth of knowledge that helps listeners understand why academics can no longer be the sole focus in schools. Dr. Hughes begins the episode by touching upon the ways trauma and chronic stress create different trajectories for students. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events that occur in childhood that have lasting impacts into adulthood. ACEs are directly correlated with a student’s learning, social connections, and problem-solving ability.

Dr. Hughes points out that ACEs are not about minimal or occasional stress, stating that some stressful circumstances actually help us deal with disappointment, problem-solving, and resilience. The disturbing impact from ACEs occurs when stress is piled on overtime or with major traumatic occurrences. Things take a turn when cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, is chronically activated. This constant heightened activation can impair rational thinking and relationship formation for decades. ACEs change the anatomy and chemistry of the brain when cortisol is activated and the fear response is triggered because the frontal lobe (the thinking region of the brain) is put on pause. When an area of the brain is not used for a long time, “use it or lose it” kicks in. When the frontal lobe begins to shut down brain cells can shrink and die.

Neuroplasticity and Repairing the Brain

Luckily, the brain can repair itself through neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability to change and modify the structure and function of the brain. When we learn something new and gain new experiences, new neural connections form in our brains. Dr. Hughes explains that we can help students form new connections by giving them a chance to express and process their emotions. Acknowledging that they are stressed about events, such as COVID-19 or a tumultuous household, help them know that their ACEs are not their fault. As students come to understand that they are surrounded by caring, trusting adults, they start to feel safe, which in turn lowers stress hormones and makes the frontal lobe more available. Above all, this helps students practice emotional regulation, become more resilient, form peer connections, and work toward academic success.

Dr. Hughes points out that we, as humans, cannot learn if we do not feel psychologically safe. So many teachers may be spinning their academic wheels with no outcome when the majority of students in the classroom have ACEs. Teachers can start by noticing – looking for students who are constantly late, getting detention, are isolated, and not participating in academics or with peers.

Mental Health Must Be Addressed in Schools

In this time of COVID, the definition of an educator's job is continuing to evolve. Mental health support and neurological development must be addressed in schools. Creating a space for students to speak openly about their emotions and experiences brings community and trust among students and teachers while helping each student feel important. Exercise, even a few minutes of light activity, can increase oxygen to the brain to help with emotional regulation and thinking. Experiencing nature opens up neural pathways through exploration. Breathing, a tool we each have, can engage the calming system in our body. Teacher training on ACEs and trauma-informed practices can expand the understanding from schools to nations.

This episode was eye-opening. Dr. Hughes challenges educators to never ignore the red flags in the classroom – addressing them can be the start of something critical intervention.

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