Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

When Trauma Hinders Learning: What's a Teacher to Do When Difficult Experiences in Early Childhood Prevent Children from Entering Kindergarten with the Executive Functions They Need?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

When Trauma Hinders Learning: What's a Teacher to Do When Difficult Experiences in Early Childhood Prevent Children from Entering Kindergarten with the Executive Functions They Need?

Article excerpt

In the fall of 2015, a front-page story in the New York Times reported on the challenge a kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn faced in dealing with a difficult new student (Taylor, 2015). From the time the six-year-old girl started kindergarten, she "struggled to adjust to its strict rules. She racked up demerits for not following directions or not keeping her hands folded in her lap. Sometimes, after being chastised, she threw tantrums. She was repeatedly suspended for screaming, throwing pencils, running away from school staff members or refusing to go to another classroom for a time-out."

Many kindergarten teachers have had similar experiences with children who simply don't seem ready for kindergarten. But they may not understand the complex developmental processes that can contribute to the troublesome, and no doubt disruptive, behaviors this child exhibited. How do social and biological factors interact to affect children's behavior, and what are the brain structures and functions involved?

Is disruptive behavior willful?

Salvatore Terrasi and Patricia Crain de Galarce (2017) have described how important it is for teachers to understand the potential impact of childhood emotional trauma on classroom behavior. They suggest that "teachers who are unaware of the dynamics of complex trauma can easily mistake its manifestations as willful disobedience, defiance, or inattention, leading them to respond to it as though it were mere 'misbehavior'" (p. 36). The child in the New York Times story does not appear to be exerting conscious control when responding to the teacher defiantly. She was more likely responding to emotional impulses she did not have the capacity to control.

The girl was the child of a single mother living in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn. Children from low-income communities who live in single-parent households are at greater risk of exhibiting these types of disruptive behaviors when entering kindergarten. As Clancy Blair and C. Cybele Raver (2015) explain, "The neurocognitive and social emotional skills integral to self-regulation undergird early learning and are likely to be compromised for children growing up in poverty and other adverse circumstances" (p. 713).

What might have impaired this six-year-old's emotional self-regulation and, as a consequence, impeded her capacity to develop the basic skills expected of most kindergartners? What should teachers know about the possible underlying causes of a child's lack of self-control? If early emotional trauma has affected a child's neural development, what steps can educators take to provide a learning environment that will enhance that development?

The importance of executive function in school readiness

Research in psychology and neuroscience has provided an increasingly clear answer to these questions. The central issue is the extent to which children have been able to develop executive function (EF) before starting kindergarten. EF includes three principal components:

* Inhibitory control--the capacity to inhibit or regulate strong emotional or impulsive behavioral responses voluntarily;

* Cognitive flexibility--the ability to think about multiple concepts simultaneously or to switch quickly between concepts;

* Working memory--the ability to hold new information in the mind, process it, and store it as a learned memory.

Together these capacities enable children to exert conscious control over their behavior to achieve a goal.

A report published by the U.S. Department of Education defined EF skills as:

the attention-regulation skills that make it possible to sustain attention, keep goals and information in mind, refrain from responding immediately, resist distraction, tolerate frustration, consider the consequences of different behaviors, reflect on past experiences, and plan for the future. (Zelazo, Blair, & Willoughby, 2016, p. …

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