Guide To Teaching and Learning

How Trauma Impedes Learning

Advances in brain science show that trauma and stress cause a series of neurochemical reactions that greatly affect two areas of the brain essential for learning: the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

Our instinct to survive plays a critical role in how we interpret sensory information, assign meaning, and act. It is governed by the deepest parts of the brain, the so-called reptilian brain, that includes the amygdala and controls our fight-flight-freeze response. When the amygdala senses danger, it triggers the hypothalamus to release cortisol and adrenaline. 

The hippocampus is vital for memory consolidation and recall and the prefrontal cortex is vital for executive function and self regulation, skills that enable students to plan, focus attention on what they’re learning, remember instructions and information, and juggle multiple projects successfully. Both the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex have large densities of cortisol receptors and high levels of cortisol can impede their regular functioning. People experiencing trauma and stress can suffer short-term memory loss, have difficulty with long-term memory retrieval, and have difficulty with planning, decision making and self regulation. In addition, the prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to develop and is not fully formed until the mid-20s. Many of our students are still developing.

During the pandemic, many people experienced feelings of distraction, lack of focus, memory lapses, problems with decision making. There are real physiological reasons why. Many of our students, faculty and staff are still experiencing the effects of this trauma.

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