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The brain science behind trauma-informed education

Trauma can change a student’s brain wiring — and it can deeply affect their ability to learn and thrive in education.
NBC Learn - Education Now Detroit: Addressing student trauma

A 2016 Brookings Institution study found that metro Detroit has the highest rate of concentrated poverty among the top 25 metro areas in the U.S. by population. Poverty, among other challenging situations young children face, can lead to significant trauma. For too many students in Michigan, trauma resulting from experiencing crime, abuse, and poverty is sadly just a part of life. In fact, the need to address this issue is so great, Michigan recently passed a bill to increase mental health funding in school and school-based health centers starting in 2020. Children who experience excessive stress or trauma face immediate and lifelong problems with learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. And this comes into the classroom, affecting academic outcomes.

In 2018, over half of Michigan’s students in grades 3-8 failed the M-STEP literacy exam. Based on test scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress, Detroit’s students perform the poorest in the nation. It is difficult for children to be successful in learning until their basic needs are met. Trauma can deeply impact a child’s brain—and therefore their ability to learn and succeed in school. Neuroscience has made significant progress in discovering how students learn, but can this extend to support students who’ve experienced trauma? For example, the amygdala, which is an important part of the brain for processing danger, tends to be enlarged and hyperactive after exposure to stress over a long period of time. And the hippocampus, the brain structure that is important for learning and memory, shrinks when a person is subject to severe stress, which could lead a child to having problems that are essential to learning, like staying focused and memory. Is understanding neuroscience the key to support learning in students who’ve experienced significant trauma?

This panel discussion will look at how educators and schools in Michigan and Detroit are using trauma-informed practices in education, and how actively working to support students who have experienced or are currently experiencing trauma impacts academic and social-emotional outcomes.

The panel discussion will be moderated by NBC News Chief Education Correspondent Rehema Ellis, and joined by panelists:

  • Terry Dangerfield - Superintendent, Lincoln Park School District
  • Ann Kalass - Chief Executive Officer, Starfish Family Services
  • Quan Neloms - School Counselor/Educator, Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD)
  • Jason Wilson - Founder and CEO, The Yunion; and creator of The Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy (CATTA)

This discussion will be featured in the “NBC News Learn Presents: Education Now” live event in metro Detroit, MI on October 24. The full event will be livestreamed here -- stay tuned for updates.