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Trauma and Learning

A book review by Itiya Aneece, PhD student in Environmental Sciences and Tomorrow’s Professor Today Alumna

Itiya Aneece

Why do we as teachers need to care about our students’ emotional and mental health in the classroom? Trauma negatively impacts learning, and if we want to create learning spaces that allow all students equal access to education, we need to consider ways to support students that experience emotional difficulties. More equal-opportunity learning environments can be created by establishing a safe learning space, collaborating with agencies that provide psychological care at the institution, promoting self-care and the professional development of the teacher, and having policies in place to support learning for survivors of trauma (Kerka 2002).

Trauma disrupts normal activity of the physiological and neurophysiological system (Perry 2006). Because the brain and body respond to trauma as if the stressor is still actively present (Perry 2006, Australian Childhood Foundation 2010), such chronic stress can impair the brain’s ability to learn and store memory (Perry 2006). This hinders survivors’ ability to remember and process information (Australian Childhood Foundation 2010). In addition, because memory is affected by trauma, survivors may emotionally react in unanticipated ways without realizing that they are reacting to a trigger (Australian Childhood Foundation 2010). Childhood trauma can also lead to smaller and slower-acting bridge structures that connect the right and left hemisphere of the brain, hampering the ability of an individual to recognize and describe what they are feeling, and recognize feelings in others (Australian Childhood Foundation 2010). Furthermore, when trauma is experienced during childhood, changes in the brain can impact the individual even through adulthood, affecting the ability to correctly incorporate new information (Perry 2006).

Within the classroom, trauma may manifest itself through absences, avoidance, social isolation, dissociation, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty taking risks such as starting new tasks, responding to questions, or thinking about alternative views (Horsman 1997). Students experiencing high levels of stress and fear may be unable to access more “mature” problem-solving capabilities and to explore and learn (Perry 2006).

The first step in supporting students who experience the effects of trauma is to establish a safe learning environment. This means giving students control over their learning in a guided framework, and providing alternative ways to use their time (Horsman 1997). Safe environments provide a framework of predictability and consistency, and can be adapted to provide learners with control (Australian Childhood Foundation 2010). Giving student a sense of control will not only benefit traumatized learners. What is good for students struggling with stress is good for everyone, whether or not trauma is present (Horsman 1997). Creating environments that provide students with choices is good pedagogy and increases student motivation (Ambrose et. al. 2010, Nilson, 2010, Svinicki, 2004.)

For survivors, nurturing healthy, consistent relationships within safe learning environments can have a profound impact. By helping students be academically successful, we are not only helping them learn in our classes. We are also contributing in a small way to the survivor’s difficult work of re-writing the script that was established through the traumatic event (Australian Childhood Foundation 2010). Good pedagogy and a little bit of caring can positively influence a student’s wellbeing and learning, both inside and outside of the classroom.

You might also be interested in reading my blog post on sexual victimization and learning.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Australian Childhood Foundation (2010). Making SPACE for learning: Trauma informed practice in schools. Australian Childhood Foundation, Ringwood VIC.

Horsman, J. (1997). “But I’m not a therapist”: Furthering discussion about literacy work with survivors of trauma. Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women. Toronto, Ontario. 37p.

Kerka, S.( 2002). Trauma and adult learning. ERIC Digest. ED472601. 8p.

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. John Wiley & Sons.

Perry, B. (2006). Fear and learning: Trauma-related factors in the adult education process. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 110: 21-27.

Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Anker Publishing Company.

Itiya Aneece is pursuing a PhD in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia. She has taught the Fundamentals of Ecology lab since the Fall of 2011, has recently completed the Tomorrow’s Professor Today program, and enjoys exploring new ways to encourage learning.

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