Learning Loss, Trauma, and Our Window of Tolerance

Dr. Kathryn Kennedy has over 15 years of experience in online, blended, and digital learning in PreK-12, higher education, and beyond. Her work is focused at the intersection of research, practice, and policy. She owns and operates her own consulting firm that is currently helping inform PLTW’s current and future teaching and learning experiences. 

As we start the school year in whatever learning environment your district or school is in, there’s a great deal of emphasis and pressure on students and educators related to learning gaps and loss from the spring. From a trauma research-informed and mental health perspective, concentrate on well-being first. What we all have experienced is trauma in so many different ways throughout this pandemic. To establish a strong foundation for learning, we need to acknowledge and work through that trauma. 

Dr. Dan Siegel of UCLA, Mindsight Institute, and the Mindful Awareness Research Center defines trauma as “an experience we have that overwhelms our capacity to cope.” Recent research in neuroscience finds that trauma is stored in our bodies and needs movement in order to work through and understand the effects on our body, mind, and psyche. Additionally, you as an educator can suffer secondary traumatic stress from working with your students through their trauma. 

Trauma can manifest itself in children in many ways. For young children, they could experience fear of strangers and separation anxiety, have trouble eating or sleeping, or regress after hitting a developmental milestone. For school-age children, they may engage in aggressive behavior, become withdrawn, or exhibit difficulty concentrating in school. For adolescents, they may be anxious or depressed, feel intense guilt, anger, and shame, or in a worst-case scenario, experience thoughts of suicide. When children exhibit these behaviors, we as educators can sometimes forget about taking the time to understand what the root cause of the behavior is and trying to help the child rather than see them as being “difficult” or “bad.” As Bessel van der Kolk, a Professor of Psychiatry and President of the Trauma Research Foundation, states in his book called The Body Keeps the Score, Brain, Mind and Body in the healing of Trauma, “When children are oppositional, defensive, numbed out, or enraged, it’s also important to recognize that such ‘bad behavior’ may be repeat action patterns that were established to survive serious threats, even if they are intensely upsetting or off-putting.”

Dr. Stephen Porges introduced the Polyvagal Theory to help us understand our response to trauma and stress. This theory can also serve as a foundation for our understanding of creating trauma-informed learning environments. This theory is based on the vagus nerve, which touches upon every major system in our bodies, and its health is essential to caring for our nervous system. The Polyvagal Theory puts focus on our window of tolerance, which you can see in the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine below. When we are triggered, we are outside of our window of tolerance. When we are numb and feeling hopeless, we are also outside of our window of tolerance. In these two spaces, no new learning can take place.

Let’s repeat that, and let it sink in. No new learning can take place when we are outside of our window of tolerance. Only within our window of tolerance can new learning take place, which brings us to why understanding these concepts is so vitally important to the field of education, especially where we are today in post-pandemic learning. Van der Kolk emphasizes, “After trauma, the world is experienced with a different nervous system.” Trauma changes our ability to adapt based on what it leaves behind in our physiology and nervous system. As learners, we want to get to a place where we feel a sense of safety in our bodies and learning space. 

One of the most important things that we can do for ourselves and our students who have experienced trauma is give space to process and, as Marc Brackett’s new book emphasizes, Permission to Feel. Oftentimes, we are told to not feel our emotions (emotional bypassing) and to think positively instead (toxic positivity), when in reality we should be processing emotions so that they don’t come up for us later. The ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale) reports that among 17,421 patients, childhood trauma correlated to serious adult medical conditions. Dr. Vincent Felitti, the Director of the ACE Study, shared, “Contrary to conventional belief, time does not heal all wounds, since humans convert traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into organic disease later in life.”

We as educators need to remember the Four Rs of trauma-informed care. We need to realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand potential paths for recovery. We need to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in our students and others involved in the learning process. We need to respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into our school and classroom procedures and practices. And we need to resist re-traumatization of children, as well as the adults who care for them. Some key trauma-informed social emotional learning practices include but are not limited to creating predictable routines, building strong and supportive relationships, empowering students’ agency, supporting the development of self-regulation skills, and providing opportunities to explore individual and community identities.

Additionally, through mindfulness practices, we can grow our windows of tolerance so that we are better able to cope with challenges. With meditation, yoga, Qigong, or Tai Chi, you can work with your students to move and help them build their window of tolerance. Mindfulness and other mindful practices can help change the physiological states left behind by trauma. Tying this to social and emotional learning, Bessel van der Kolk shares that our own internal systems, when trusted by ourselves and those with whom we interact, can help us heal: “Give people greater access to their innate self-regulatory systems - the way they move, breathe, sing, interact with one another - so they can discover their natural resources to regulate themselves in a different way, especially when life gets challenging...The last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess, and anything involving movement, play, and joyful engagement.” 

These practices help us work through our traumas, to become comfortable with being in the present moment and being able to stay embodied rather than to disassociate, which is a common practice for trauma survivors. These practices help us to feel the places that have no words. We acknowledge that we as educators are stressed. We were stressed pre-pandemic, but because of COVID-19 we went into absolute emergency crisis mode to continue to serve our students, their families, our schools and districts, and our communities. And we did this on top of also taking care of our own families as well. This has been an extremely traumatic time. Practice self-compassion and be gentle with yourself and everyone around you. Engage in grounding practices on a regular basis to keep yourself healthy for you and those around you. Remember to fill your own cup first so you can fill the cups of others.

PLTW’s blog intends to serve as a forum for ideas and perspectives from across our network. The opinions expressed are those of each guest author.