As educators, parents, counselors, or other dedicated childcare providers, we all want kids to grow up in safety and security. But unfortunately, we cannot always guarantee that kids will be protected from adverse experiences. And it seems to be a truism of life that we will all undergo suffering at various times. As educators, it’s crucial that we recognize how suffering can impede learning, and to recognize what tools we have to develop resilience in kids so that they can overcome adverse experiences and flourish as lifelong learners.
In this blog post, I want to share some recent research from Harvard’s Center on The Developing Child on how childhood adverse experiences can impede learning. I also want to share some tips and strategies for addressing diversity-related obstacles to learning and for cultivating resiliency.
Understanding Adverse Experiences
Adverse experiences can include:
– Trauma-inducing incidents (whether isolated incidents or recurring as in the case of abuse)
– Impoverishment (including food scarcity, housing insecurity, etc.)
– Family disruption (including death, divorce, prolonged marital strife)
– Bullying or social ostracization
– Persistent struggles with illness or disability
– Persistent discrimination (including racial discrimination and gender discrimination)
– Exposure to Violence (or other forms of vicarious suffering)
– Exposure to Destabilizing Events (including natural disasters, pandemics, etc.)
In general, repeated adverse experiences tend to be especially problematic as a stressor that has long-term effects on development. But the intensity of any individual experience matters too. Our minds and bodies adapt very quickly to information from our environment. If we are repeatedly forced to adapt to a fundamentally unsafe environment (whether physically or emotionally unsafe), that can lead to lasting mental habits and physical processes that can impede us in situations that are safe. This can be especially challenging for our kids, who likely aren’t even aware that the reason they can’t focus on their math problems, for example, is because their body is still reacting to feeling unsafe from an earlier situation.
Intervention Strategy #1: Use The Language of Upstairs/Downstairs Brain
We can only properly regulate our emotions and behaviors once we have language with which to think about them and describe them to others. In trauma studies, a helpful vocabulary for kids is the metaphor of the upstairs and downstairs brain. Karen Pace, a researcher at University of Michigan, explains that
the downstairs brain includes lower regions of the brain that are responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking) as well as impulses and emotions (like anger and fear). The upstairs brain is responsible for more intricate mental processes like planning, decision-making, self-awareness, empathy and morality. When a child’s upstairs brain is functioning well, she’s more likely to be able to slow herself down, think before she acts, regulate emotions, self-soothe and consider others’ feelings and perspectives — all important areas of healthy human functioning.
By introducing students to this analogy, in situations of stress or unregulated negative emotion, you can help your student to self-assess which part of their brain is dominating their response, and guide them into upstairs-brain regulation.
While the list of adverse experiences included above includes instances of adversity that are caused by other people, it also indicates that stressors like environmental disasters or illness can also lead to compromised learning. As an example, the Center notes that “higher rates of infection in early childhood can increase the level of anxiety at later ages, which can then compromise school performance.” The simple truth is that many kids, from all kinds of backgrounds, can have adverse experiences that affect their development and impede their learning. And the sheer extent to which experiences can affect our bodies is staggering. As the Center explains, effects are not just on “the developing brain, but also many other physiological systems, from cardiovascular function and immune responsiveness to metabolic regulation.“
Consider the description of what happens automatically and without conscious thought inside the body when we undergo a particularly stressful experience:
“(1) the autonomic nervous system increases heart rate and breathing so the cardiovascular
system can pump more oxygen-rich blood to the brain and muscles to drive the “fight or flight” response; (2) the immune system is activated to fight against the possibility of open wounds and infection; (3) metabolic systems are tuned up to generate more energy to fuel the body’s cells, tissues, and organs; (4) the neuroendocrine system maintains the delicate balance of hormones that regulate many dimensions of the body’s adaptation to what it senses in the environment.”
If you’ve ever noticed how long it takes to calm down after an argument, you’ll know exactly what’s being described in this study. You might feel shaky even hours later or completely exhausted and unfocused for the remainder of the day. Now imagine undergoing this biological reaction on a regular (perhaps even daily) basis. Your body will quickly become adept at launching these responses in real-time, entering protection mode at even the hint of threat. These interconnected bodily responses are vital, and in dangerous situations, the speed and reliability of these automatic responses can literally be life-saving. But our bodies are not designed to sustain this protection-mode for long periods of time, and being in this state chronically begins to erode our biological systems and prevent attention, memory, and other cognitive activities essential to the learning process.
Adverse Experiences and Learning
Once we understand the far reaching biological effects of adverse experiences, it becomes much easier to understand why some kids really struggle in academic settings. Learning can be a really stressful experience, in general, and particularly if kids are worried about grades or about meeting parental expectations. Most kids are resilient enough to handle this academic pressure without too much difficulty. But for kids with adverse experiences, their initial capacity for handling these stressors may be dramatically reduced. It is common for these learners to disengage, shut-down, grow easily frustrated or distraught, become confused or disoriented, or to act out behaviorally (which tends to really be an implicit cry for help.) If we recognize that these students are experiencing impediments not directly connected to the learning itself or to their own conscious choices, we can better respond with empathy and with attention to the root issues such as stress-overload.
Intervention Strategy #2: Create Easily Accessible Calming Rhythms
We saw in our first strategy that in any given instance where a student has entered the downstairs-brain-protection-mode, the first step is to match our language with the experience. The second strategy is to then regain calm, helping the student to regain access to their upstairs-brain. To regain calm, use fun, stress-free activities that your student has enjoyed in positive settings. This might be as simple as a breathing exercise or it could involve reading aloud or playing a fun game or exercising or any number of activities that help de-escalate and de-stress. The key here is to let your student have the time they need, because if the break is adequate and the intervention is successful, they will be able to re-engage with their learning. It’s also worth noting that the quicker you can intervene to provide calming rhythms, the less likely your student will associate whatever topic they are studying with negative emotions and experiences. If you’re looking for a lengthy list of activities, check out this resource.
Some Stress is Good
As counterintuitive as it may seem, having some opportunities to experience stress is deeply beneficial. Paradoxically, then, too much sheltering of kids can actually undermine their capacity for dealing with stressful and adverse experiences later in life. The Center explains that “for children who are not living under conditions of chronic hardship, activation of stress response systems that are brief and intermittent, followed by a return to balance, leads to healthy adaptations that build resilience.” This is why risky play is important. Letting kids increase their tolerance for stress by engaging in regulating themselves in safe yet challenging play is essential for healthy development.
In a similar vein, while it’s tempting to think that we should remove all stress from the lives of kids who have undergone adverse experiences, this does them a disservice in the long run. Instead, the goal should be to gradually increase their stress tolerance by providing ample opportunities for them to develop self-regulation skills. The threshold for the amount of healthy stress that they can handle will ideally increase over time, as their bodies experience rest and renew.
Intervention Strategy #3: Embrace Play
Another important technique for easing the transition from downstairs to upstairs brain and for building greater capacity for self-regulation and stress management is to find fun and challenging activities that allow kids to develop better ways to cope with stress. For example, indoor rock climbing can be a great way for kids to learn to regulate stress, to reinforce a felt sense of their own agency and ability, and to experience tangible growth in skills like spatial reasoning. A real sense of enjoyment is key here because it clues both us and the kids themselves into whether or not the stress they are experiencing in a given moment is productive and beneficial or overwhelming and destructive.
Intervention Strategy #4: Foster A Growth Mindset
For kids whose development has been affected by adverse experiences, the Center notes that it’s important for educators to respond “by providing supportive relationships in predictable environments, reducing sources of significant stress, and building a toolkit of adaptive skills.” For example, having set routines that kids help to create can provide a sense of order and predictability that can disarm the stress response, allowing kids to access their prefrontal cortex, and thus the executive skills (like impulse control, memory, and sustained attention) that are needed for successful learning.
Our current limitations and those of our students should not be seen as an unchangeable part of our identity. Instead, cultivating a growth mindset that focuses on slowly improving provides a meaningful way forward for students who have experienced impediments to their learning. By emphasizing student-paced learning and by celebrating all the little wins along the way, we can help struggling students to build confidence in themselves and their capacity for growth.
Conclusion: Building Resilience
The good news is that it is never too late to begin developing resilience. Our bodies are designed to be adaptive and that is especially true for kids. Regardless of what experiences kids have undergone, there is always hope for their continued development and growth. Our patience, empathy, and unconditional support are the keys to empowering kids to regulate their bodies, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, and to face whatever challenges that come their way.