Adversity Affects Learning

David was a 5th grader at an elementary school in East Oakland (California), where I worked as a special education teacher¹. The school was located in a neighborhood greatly affected by crime, drugs and gangs. Many students at the school had been exposed to violence and abuse, and most students had some kind of psychological trauma. David lived with two siblings and his mom, who was addicted to drugs. I saw David twice a week to work on his reading. The minute he walked into my room, I could clearly see if he was doing well or having a hard day. When he felt defeated, frustrated or pushed in any way, he would shut down and not respond to any verbal communication.

In the US, 34.8 million children are affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), which are stressful or traumatic events that children experience before age 18, such as violence at home, neglect, abuse, or having a parent with mental illness or substance dependence. They harm children’s developing brains, leading to changes in how they respond to stress, and damaging their immune system with effects that manifest well into adulthood.

In my new SEL book, Teaching with the Heart in Mind, I discuss how a high or frequent exposure to ACEs can dysregulate children’s stress response and affect the chemical and physical structures of a child’s brain. I also discuss how the right kind of support and care can mitigate the impact of toxic stress in children, and help them bounce back. Here’s a snippet from chapter 3 – Adversity affects learning. If you want to receive these excerpts directly in your email, sign up  for updates or send me a message. I love hearing from you!

You may be wondering how many students in your classroom have had or are currently experiencing trauma and toxic stress. In certain cases, you may receive information from the school’s counselor or psychologist or, if the student has one, from their Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). However, in many cases students don’t share what it is happening at home; they may fear harsh punishment from their caregiver or being told they are lying. In other cases, they may not be able to put into words their experience. Therefore, you might have students in your classroom that have ACEs and you don’t know about them. The good news is that trauma-informed practices benefit all students, so you don’t need to know for sure if students are experiencing toxic stress to embrace them.

When I was studying to become a special education teacher, there was a big push to adopt/generalize the use of strategies to support learning differences. Until that point, teachers used certain tools with special education students only, believing that the other students did not need them. Well, teachers started to realize that many of these strategies were actually beneficial not only to students who had been diagnosed with a disability, but also to other students as well. The same is true for trauma-informed practices: you don’t need to use these practices with those students who you know for sure have been exposed to adversity. Trauma-informed practices will support all students in your classroom.

Create physically and emotionally safe spaces. For learning to take place, a child needs to feel safe, physically and emotionally. While most classrooms are physically safe, many classrooms could do more to create an emotionally healthy environment. When students feel shamed, intimated or scared on a regular basis, they become disengaged and less motivated about school. This disengagement may contribute to poor attendance, grade repetition and discipline referrals, which, in turn, may lead to school dropout. In other words, when schools do not foster the appropriate conditions for learning, including positive relationships between and among students and adults, schools can actually harm students.

As we saw in chapter 1, it is fine to experience a wide range of different emotions in school; however, learning environments cannot be built on frustration or fear, because they cause the brain to go into “flight or fight” response. For a child who has experienced ACEs, it is important to encounter an environment of respect and care, establishing healthy boundaries and expectations that are shared by students and teachers.

Do you want to be in the loop about the book? Sign up for updates or follow #teachingheartinmind on Twitter. I’ll be sharing another excerpt covering key aspects of SEL implementation. Stay tuned!


¹ The student’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.


Center for Youth Wellness. Aces and Chronic Stress. Retrieved from

Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development1. Applied Developmental Science, 1-31. DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2017.1398650

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