Trauma’s Long-Term Impact on Cognitive Functioning

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

By Jennie Liang, CEI Intern

A recent longitudinal study shows that adverse childhood events (ACEs) have long-term effects on cognitive functioning as young adults age into adulthood (Hawkins et al., 2021). This study builds on existing research demonstrating that ACEs negatively impact a range of cognitive functions including processing speed, executive function, perceptual reasoning, memory, and verbal comprehension (Danese et al., 2017). It is crucial for educators to be aware of ACEs and their impact on cognition to ensure all students have equitable opportunities for learning and achievement.

Types of ACEs and Their Impact

Hawkins et al. (2021) delineate between two different types of adverse childhood events: deprivation-type and threat-type ACEs. Deprivation-type ACEs are when expected social, physical, and cognitive supports are absent or limited, resulting in neglect. Threat-type ACEs are when there is an unexpected risk to physical health and safety, leading to physical or sexual abuse.

While the study shows that both types of ACEs contribute to lower cognitive performance, they may affect neurocognitive functioning differently. Deprivation-type ACEs were shown to impact both memory and executive function in the long-term, which may result in reduced ability in language development and other intelligence indicators. These results suggest that early deprivation of resources have long-term effects on cognitive performance.

On the other hand, threat-type ACEs produce toxic stress, which creates neurocognitive harm by disrupting the body’s stress, inflammation, endocrine, cardiovascular, and metabolic systems. Outside of threats faced at home, youths who are members of marginalized groups also experience stress caused by system-level factors of racism, classism, and discrimination. These systemic issues contribute to toxic stress and depressive symptoms, which also negatively impacts cognitive performance.

Exposure to ACEs has a dose-response impact on health, meaning the greater the number of ACEs the youth is exposed to, the worse their outcomes. Hawkins et al. (2021) found this to be true in their research as well, showing that a greater number of cumulative ACEs predicted lower scores on cognitive functioning measures.

How Educators Can Play a Role

Fortunately, the impact of ACEs can be overcome by trauma-informed approaches that build resiliency. A trauma-informed school environment is one that enables educators to support students’ mental and physical health so they are able to learn. Schools can offer professional development for staff to increase their understanding of childhood trauma and screen students for their history of ACEs to identify common risk factors and develop responsive interventions for students (National Education Association, 2020).

Trauma-informed school communities that address childhood trauma have a higher percentage of success across the student body (National Education Association, 2020). Schools that focus only on academics over addressing ACEs cannot overcome gaps in performance and achievement because of the impact ACEs have on cognitive functioning. Schools that can support students’ needs around issues of trauma will be able to ensure that all students are ready to meet academic challenges and engage in equitable learning outcomes.

Here are a couple resources to help your school become more trauma-informed:


Asby, D., Farrise, K., Mason, C., Sumski, A., Crocker, J., Santa, R., Staeheli, M. (2020). Back to school after COVID-19: Supporting student and staff mental health toolkit. New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center.

Danese, A., Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Bleiberg, B. A., Dinardo, P. B., Gandelman, S. B., Houts, R., Ambler, A., Fisher, H. L., Poulton, R., & Caspi, A. (2017). The origins of cognitive deficits in victimized children: Implications for neuroscientists and clinicians. American Journal of Psychiatry, 174(4), 349–361.

Hawkins, M. A. W., Layman, H. M., Ganson, K. T., Tabler, J., Ciciolla, L., Tsotsoros, C. E., & Nagata, J. M. (2021). Adverse childhood events and cognitive function among young adults: Prospective results from the national longitudinal study of adolescent to adult health. Child Abuse & Neglect, 115, 105008.

Mason, C., Wenzel, M., Asby, D., & Staeheli, M. (2020). A compassionate school response to mental illness guide. New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center.

National Education Association. (2020). Understanding trauma.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2017). Creating, supporting, and sustaining trauma-informed schools: A system framework.

Transforming Education. (n.d.). Trauma-informed SEL toolkit.

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