Presentation on theme: "Childhood Trauma & Chronic Stress:"— Presentation transcript:
1 Childhood Trauma & Chronic Stress: Effects on the Brain and Learning, and Potential Role of the SchoolsWendy Cunningham, Psy.D.Licensed Clinical Psychologist
2 ObjectivesShow why it is important for alternative schools to understand trauma and chronic stressIlluminate current research that links trauma/chronic stress with biology, environment, behavior, and academic performanceDiscuss the importance of a systematic approach and why it is important
3 Few Important NumbersDifficult to get prevalence rates; however, studies estimate between 3.3 and 10 million children witness violence in their home each year2003: U.S. Department of HealthReported approximately 906,000 children in protective custody2005: Massachusetts Department of EducationInformal surveys to 450 students of alternative-education programs in 11 school districts that received state funds90% of the students surveyed reported trauma history
4 What is a “Traumatic Event” Many factors involved in what is considered a traumatic event, including:Threat or perceived threat to well-being of self or otherIndividual temperamentPast experiencesWho is involved in the eventWhy events affect individuals in different ways
5 Factors Impacting Trauma Reaction Characteristics of the IndividualCharacteristics of the EnvironmentCharacteristics of the Traumatic EventSee Massachusetts Adovcates for Children, (2005). Helping Traumatized Children Learn, Appendix C.
6 Chronic Stress See similar biological effects as with trauma Less obvious than a traumatic event
7 ARE THERE BRAIN EFFECTS? “I could see the math teacher’s mouth moving in the classroom but couldn’t hear a thing. It was as if I were in a soundless chamber. She was smiling and clearly talking, I just couldn’t process a word of it. I had been an excellent math student, but the day she told me I was “spacey” and unfocused was the day I stopped connecting to math. My grades dropped and they took me out of the advanced classes.”Massachusetts Advocates for Children, (2005). Helping Traumatized Children Learn, p.24.
8 From http://www.ahaf.org/alzdis/about/AnatomyBrain.htm
10 Evolutionary Favorite Wiring of the brain favors emotionsThere tends to be more connections directed from the limbic system to the cortex (emotion affects thoughts) versus cortex to limbic system (thought affects emotion)Theories of EvolutionAlthough hypothetical, theories suggest that we may move towards more of a balanceLeDoux, J. (1998) The emotional brain. London: Phoenix.
12 What’s the Deal? Incredible Shrinking Brain: Effects on hippocampus Decreased hippocampal volumeLower hippocampal neural connectionTo Stress or Not to Stress: Confused stress responseConsistent survival modeHPA system down-regulatesUnraveling chromosomesChronic stress shown to unravel telomeres (ends of chromosomes)Unorganized brain – unorganized behaviorImprinting (ex. orbitofrontal cortex) and missed stimuli from environmental experiences compromises structural arrangements for regulation
13 Emotional Memories External Event Amygdala HippocampusImplicit memory Explicit memory--event was awful --who, what, where--body reaction*Occurs together to contribute to the experience of the event as a whole*Not selective in triggers; broad scope
14 Brain Stressed Out Hippocampus overwhelmed by glucocorticoids “Talk” betweenneurons disruptedNo new neurons formedAmygdalaoverwhelms hippocampus5. Prolongedglucocorticoidexposure mightdamage or killhippocampal neurons
15 Not to Mention Brain Development Issues! Poor attachment experiences:Cognitive deficitsBrain unable to develop self-regulationPoor sequential memoryExecutive functioning poorly developedLanguage instrumental vs. social/emotional
16 Implications for Learning Studies show that when compared to other children, maltreated children have:
17 We Have the Most Difficult Kids!!!! What Behaviors Do You See?(Think Brain Influences!)Awareness important, because it can reduce anger, increase understanding, and improve intervention
19 Factors Impacting Trauma Reaction Characteristics of the IndividualCharacteristics of the EnvironmentCharacteristics of the Traumatic EventSee Massachusetts Adocates for Children, (2005). Helping Traumatized Children Learn, Appendix C.
20 Empirically Supported Interventions Include: Attachment/relationship focusTraining in affect regulationSystematic desensitization/titrated exposureIndividual therapySymbolic play for young childrenAge-appropriate group therapyCaretaker involvement as appropriatePOSITIVE AND COLLABORATIVE TEAM SPIRIT is CRITICAL
21 Attachment: Not just a nice idea All research, both biological and psychological, shows that social affiliation and attachment are critical components of mediating effects of trauma and chronic stress
22 Attachment Styles, Brain Development, and Behavior Attachment style psychologically based on view of self & view of other:Secure: positive/positivePreoccupied: negative/positiveDistant: positive/negativeDisorganized/Fearful: negative/negativeResearch shows that traumatized kids largely exhibit disorganized attachment styleBrain organization in early development relies upon environment and response of caregiversResearch also shows executive functioning deficits present in disorganized attachment style that differentiates it from other styles
23 System Approach Administration& Planning Staff Needs & Training Staff CollaborationAppropriateTeachingEvaluation of ProgramSuccess
24 Couple of Comprehensive Resources for Schools Integrative Treatment of Complex Trauma for Children (ITCT-C) – 2008; also manual for adolescents & yg adults Free manual atHelping Traumatized Children Learn: Supportive school environments for children traumatized by family violence – 2005; from the Massachusetts Advocates for Children: Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative. Download manual at