I Wish I Had Learned About the Science of the Brain and Toxic Stress

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

The first time I met Martin*, his fellow kindergartners were at the rug listening to a book, and he was under a chair. I was a first-year teacher visiting the students who would be in my first grade class the next year. I watched as Martin noisily crawled under desks while the teacher read aloud; she had clearly reached her limit and decided to attempt to ignore the behavior for the time being. Like me, her teacher training had not prepared her for what to do in the “child-under-desk” scenario.

I resolved that when Martin joined my class the next year, I would make sure that he participated in class activities. I spent the summer reading up on classroom management and student engagement. What I didn’t know until many years later is that there is a body of knowledge on the science of the brain and stress that would have made me a much more effective teacher to Martin — and many of the other students in my class.

The author at the graduation ceremony for her teacher preparation master’s program.

Martin, a stocky, apple-cheeked boy with a winning grin, turned out to be one of my most rewarding and challenging students. Each day that he was in my class, I braced myself for some kind of outburst or confrontation. He threw tantrums, as well as the occasional backpack, book, or pencil. He had a hard time sitting still. He picked fights. He became quickly frustrated and often refused to do work. On the other hand, he regularly made me and his classmates laugh. He relished my praise and listened attentively when I sat down with him one on one. He was so proud and delighted when he finally started to read.

I thought of Martin many times this summer as I read The Deepest Well by renowned pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris. In the book, Harris lays out in detail how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have a profound impact on children’s and adults’ physical and mental health. She describes her journey to understand and incorporate into her medical practice lessons from a seminal study, published in 1998, that found longterm health effects related to ten specific ACEs: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; loss of a parent to death or separation; a parent who is alcoholic, depressed, or mentally ill; or witnessing a mother being abused.

The research is relevant across the population: nearly two-thirds (67%) of adults have at least one ACE. And the study found a strong link between experiencing four or more ACEs before age 18 and chronic health conditions in adulthood, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma, and depression.

Harris vividly explains how prolonged exposure to traumatic experiences can affect a person’s physical, neurological, social, and emotional development. In moments of acute stress, such as (in Harris’ example) encountering a bear in the woods, our bodies are programmed to have a stress response that triggers a “freeze, fight, or flight” response. This response is healthy and meant to maximize survival.

However, when people are exposed to highly stressful situations for prolonged periods — for example, when living next to a forest full of bears — their bodies can get stuck in that “freeze, fight, or flight” mode, especially if they don’t have the buffer of a caring adult to help them process trauma. In this state, the body is flooded with hormones that impact long term physical and mental health; hence the term “toxic” stress. Children whose stress response is constantly “switched on” are more likely to have difficulty learning and concentrating, sitting still, planning for the future, forming social relationships, or regulating emotions, among other things.

When I first started teaching, I had never learned about childhood trauma, ACEs, or toxic stress. Having that knowledge would have helped me understand Martin better. I knew that Martin lived with his grandmother because his father was in jail and his mother had substance abuse problems. That’s two ACEs right there, both occurring before the age of 6. I didn’t know enough about his family life to know if he’d experienced other ACEs, but we did know that he sometimes spent weekends with an uncle, and whenever he did, his behavior was much worse on the following Monday.

Beyond understanding my students better, knowing about the science of toxic stress would have helped me do something about it. Research provides evidence that certain practices can lead to a healthier stress response and even undo the effects of toxic stress. In the classroom, teachers can employ trauma-informed practices such as: establishing a consistent, calm, and safe environment; helping students identify and cope with emotions; teaching relaxation, stress management, and executive function skills; helping the student connect with peers and supportive adults; and developing behavior plans that are based on reward systems, not punishment.

Many teachers have students like Martin, who exhibit symptoms of toxic stress that interfere with learning. Any of them can attest to how disheartening and emotionally taxing it is to know you are struggling to manage those symptoms without knowing how to address the underlying cause. I am happy to say that I stumbled on some of the strategies listed above, and Martin and I made progress together. But if I had had training in how to support trauma-impacted students, I could have been more intentional in helping Martin learn and potentially even have positively contributed to his longterm health. I would also have been more emotionally resilient myself.

Around the country, some schools and districts are starting to provide teachers with more training in the science of ACEs. Turnaround for Children partners with schools to train their entire staff in trauma-informed practices and design school environments that promote healthy development and resilience for all students. Schools that have embraced these practices, like Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, report seeing dramatic changes such as lower suspension rates, improved GPAs, and increased graduation rates.

Martin was not the only child in my class who I suspect was experiencing trauma. I had students who were homeless, in foster care, or had parents who were alcoholic or in jail. I had to report two cases of suspected physical or sexual abuse. In a high-poverty neighborhood like the one where I taught, the risk of exposure to ACEs tends to be greater because caregivers have fewer resources to provide the protective buffer that shields children from toxic stress in the face of adversity.

But as Harris emphasizes in her book, it is critical to note that ACEs affect the entire population, regardless of race, class, or geographical location. The original ACEs study was performed in a largely white, middle class, well-educated, and well-resourced sample. It is a public health phenomenon that affects many students’ ability to learn, and as such, should be something that every teacher preparation program trains prospective teachers on.

*a pseudonym