Learning & Tech

How Trauma Affects The Brain Of A Learner

Chronic stress can cause deficiencies in the pre-frontal cortex, which is essential for learning. i i

Chronic stress can cause deficiencies in the pre-frontal cortex, which is essential for learning. John M/Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption John M/Flickr
Chronic stress can cause deficiencies in the pre-frontal cortex, which is essential for learning.

Chronic stress can cause deficiencies in the pre-frontal cortex, which is essential for learning.

John M/Flickr

Our public media colleagues over at KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, have a fascinating two-part report on the efforts of schools in the Los Angeles area to address the effects of "toxic stress" on student learning.

"As researchers work to solve one of the most persistent problems in public education – why kids in poor neighborhoods fail so much more often than their upper-income peers – more and more they're pointing the finger at what happens outside the classroom.

Shootings. Food insecurity. Sirens and fights in the night. Experts are finding that those stressors build up, creating emotional problems and changes in the brain that can undermine even the clearest lessons."

Eighty percent of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District are in poverty. Scientists are zeroing in on how it can affect their developing brains.

"Studies show chronic stress can change the chemical and physical structures of the brain.

'You see deficits in your ability to regulate emotions in adaptive ways as a result of stress,'said Dr. Cara Wellman, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University.

Dendrites, which look like microscopic fingers, stretch off each brain cell to catch information. Wellman's studies in mice show that chronic stress causes these fingers to shrink, changing the way the brain works. She found deficiencies in the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain needed to solve problems, which is crucial to learning.

Other researchers link chronic stress to a host of cognitive effects, including trouble with attention, concentration, memory and creativity."

Responding in part to this research, Camino Nuevo, a network of eight charter schools, dedicates resources to creating what it calls a "continuum of integrated support" for students. One fourth of students at the schools see counselors to help them build social and emotional skills. The schools hold group sessions for parents to help them deal with stress in their lives too, and employ full-time parent liasions to help families access health care, mental health, housing, legal, or immigration services. To pay for all this, the schools privately raise about $1.6 million in outside funds. They also tap into MediCal and work with private providers to integrate services right within the school.

Blanca Ruiz is a Mexican immigrant and single mother with a child, Luis, at a Camino Nuevo middle school.

"Since she started counseling at the school, Ruiz lost fifty pounds and saved money to buy a reliable car.

Last year, Ruiz moved her kids 15 miles east to a house in El Monte with a tiny porch and big lemon tree. But there was no way she was changing schools.

She still drives Luis to Camino Nuevo in MacArthur Park every day on her way to work. Sometimes she'll bring him a special treat of KFC for lunch...

Luis's sixth grade teacher, Sarah Wechsler, keeps a close eye on him. She tracks even the smallest details, like how often she encourages him. She wants to make sure positive reinforcements far outpace stern talk.

Wechsler said in the last year, she's seen Luis completely turn around and take ownership of his schoolwork."

At LAUSD public schools, it's a different story. Resource constraints mean just one percent of the school population can access mental health services. Read the rest of the series here.

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