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Learning Loss, Trauma, and Our Window of Tolerance

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 For school-age children, they may engage in aggressive behavior, become withdrawn, or exhibit difficulty concentrating in school.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.