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How Trauma Impacts Learning and How to Find Support

Written by O'Connor Professional Group
Published on August 11, 2022

By: Nadia Albritton, MA

Does trauma impact learning? The short answer is, yes. Trauma is a risk factor on school performance because trauma effects: concentration, memory, organizational and language. As one can presume, essential aspects assist for academic success. Significant development of the brain occurs in childhood and adolescents.  For instance, the hippocampus, the area of the brain that plays a major role in memory and learning, develops rapidly in early childhood. In adolescent years, the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain in charge of executive functions (such as: planning, decisions, problem-solving, processing new information, etc.) is at its significant development. As one can imagine, (and I think few will argue with me on this point), there are crucial changes in this sensitive timeframe. The stimuli of trauma can disrupt and alter the brain’s natural evolution. Excess corticosterone secretion can create neurotoxicity and impair the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. 

In addition to the impact of brain function, traumatic experiences activates an inherent automatic stress response in the body.  During these circumstances, the brain perceives danger and the body reacts in a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. Over repeated exposures, the individual adapts to their distress such as: becoming quick-tempered (fight), experiencing perpetual restlessness (flight), being unable to take action (freeze), or disregarding one’s needs (fawning). How a trauma response manifests differs for each person. The tools required for emotional and behavioral self-regulation are not accessible, thus impacting the ability to stay present and attentive in a learning environment.

Aside from the neurological and biological implications, a student may be “too scared to learn”. Perceived fear, even if is “misperceived” fear, impacts the relationship experience between the individual and school personnel and peers. The perseveration for safety may lead to anomalous behaviors. This experience can be further exacerbated if school officials react in a negative manner. Without the ability to connect with teachers and peers, school becomes another unsafe experience.

Trauma can create a fearful response that may lead to mental disorders such as: anxiety and depression. These mental health symptoms can be too overwhelming, thus impacting overall academic engagement.  It make sense that lack of attendance can result in a student falling behind with school work. It is not because the student is incapable, it is because they are in distressed. 

Survivors of trauma are often misunderstood and they are vulnerable. Safety is the bedrock for trauma survivors. Once a safe environment and safe connections are established, a child can then begin to learn additional skills. To begin, initiate contact with the school counselor for resources for therapeutic services. 

If you are looking for a comprehensive, trauma sensitive and therapeutic schools, here are some resources you may find useful:

The Sanctuary Model: a trauma-informed model for organizations to help people heal from trauma. 

Alliance for Inclusion & Prevention: Directory for trauma-informed programs https://aipinc.org/trauma/

The Center for Trauma Care in Schools (CTCS): has school-based delivery to treat traumatic stress in children.

Connecting with Care (CWC): mental health services in high needs neighborhoods and public schools

O’Connor Professional Group (OPG) offers a breadth of behavioral health services to address the needs of individuals and families living with addictions, eating disorders, mood and personality disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and other behavioral health conditions. If you or a loved one is suffering from a mental health disorder or are in need of support, contact us today. Our compassionate professionals are here to help find the resources to support you and your family. 


Dingman M. Know Your Brain: Telencephalon. Neuroscientifically Challenged. http://www.neuroscientificallychallenged.com/blog/know-your-brain-telencephalon. Published July 7, 2017. Accessed July 27, 2017

McInerney, M., & McKlindon, A. (2014). Unlocking the door to learning: Trauma-informed classrooms & transformational schools. Education law center, 1-24.

Carrion, V. G., & Wong, S. S. (2012). Can traumatic stress alter the brain? Understanding the implications of early trauma on brain development and learning. Journal of adolescent health, 51(2), S23-S28.

Blitz, L.V., Yull, D., Clauhs, M. (2016). Foundation for culturally responsive trauma-informed approaches for urban schools. Sage journals, Volume: 55 issue: 1, 95-124

Bath, H. (2008). The three pillars of trauma-informed care. Reclaiming children and youth, 17(3), 17-21.

Finning, K., Ukoumunne, O.C., Ford, T., Danielson-Waters, E., Shaw, L., Romero De Jager, I., Stentiford, L. and Moore, D.A. (2019), Review: The association between anxiety and poor attendance at school – a systematic review. Child Adolesc Ment Health, 24: 205-216. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12322

Terrasi, S., & Crain de Galarce, P. (2017). Trauma and Learning in America’s classrooms. Emotional life and learning, V98 N6, 35-41.

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