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Ways In Which Childhood Trauma Can Adversely Affect Learning

We know that severe and protracted childhood trauma can give rise to toxic stress that, over time, can harm the physical development of various brain regions such as the amygdala,

This can result in conditions such as complex PTSD or related symptoms such as dissociation and hypervigilance.

It is important that individuals affected in this way receive appropriate therapeutic support as early as possible and one important reason for this (amongst many others, of course, which I write about in other sections of this site) is the impact the effects of chronic childhood trauma on the brain’s development can have on the child’s ability to learn.

In particular, the child’s ability might be impaired in relation to the following cognitive tasks:

  • processing verbal information
  • problems concentrating
  • following the teacher’s instructions
  • problems with remembering information both in relation to storage and recall
  • problem-solving

The child’s behaviour may also be affected, including in the following ways:

  • increased rate of truancy
  • outbursts of anger and rage
  • irritability
  • loss of interest in school activities
  • increased conflict with peers (including both being bullied and bullying others)

Furthermore, the child may be psychologically affected in various ways, including


Possible Harmful Effects Of Mainstream Schooling

There exists an ever-growing body of evidence that suggests the school system is very far away indeed from being an optimum environment to encourage learning. Indeed, the system frequently destroys any potential love of learning the child may otherwise have developed.

The main characteristics of the schooling system that may be particularly unhelpful are summarised below:

1) The Strong Element of Compulsion:

Children are essentially forced to learn things which may neither be of intrinsic benefit to the child nor interest him. Children are largely expected to all learn the same things; this, of course, means individual differences, interests and talents are frequently overlooked.

Oppressively frequent standardised testing is not conducive to the development of creativity in the child, nor is the control and regulation that is a part of the school system.

Indeed, in order for the child’s natural inclination to be creative to flourish, environments in which learning is non-directive and not rigidly regulated are much to be preferred so that the child’s creative instincts are not systematically stifled.

Research has found that children tend to produce more creative work when they do not believe anyone is going to judge and evaluate it.

Knowing one’s work is going to be assessed by others can create stress that inhibits creativity and spontaneity.

2) Conformity.

School tends to encourage everyone to be pretty much the same as each other (a main reason most schools in the UK make all their pupils adhere to a strict uniform policy). Students are all encouraged to do well by an extrinsic reward system (for example, high grades, university entrance) which detracts from any idea of making the work they do rewarding in and of itself, irrespective of external rewards it may lead to.

This tends to produce a mindset that leads people who have been educated in such a manner to seek ‘respectable’ (but soul-destroying) careers which offer high extrinsic rewards (such as money, company car etc) rather than careers which are intrinsically rewarding (in other words, work that the individual finds deeply personally fulfilling irrespective of any extrinsic rewards it may bring).

Those who choose careers for their extrinsic rewards such as money, once they realise money (or some other extrinsic reward) doesn’t make them feel as good as they thought it would, often deeply regret their choice of a profession. And, as their error gradually dawns on them, it leaves them feeling utterly bereft of any semblance of a sense of personal fulfilment or meaningfulness in relation to their work.

One person I know fell into this trap by becoming an accountant, and, to extricate himself from his mind-numbingly tedious profession, changed his career to that of a social worker, even though this involved paying for training and then a fifty per cent cut in his income. It worked. He is much happier now and feels he is doing something both personally fulfilling and of tangible social value.

3) Rebelliousness.

Many young people are particularly unsuited, in terms of their natural temperament, to the school learning regime. This results in such individuals becoming bored, frustrated, resentful and, perhaps, angry in response to the system (dramatized particularly well in the Pink Floyd song and video, Another Brick In The Wall).


Essentially, in such circumstances, the individual and unique needs of the child are not being met, and, if the child finds it difficult to conform to the school’s rigid and inflexible expectations, he is generally blamed and punished, which, one hardly needs to be a genius to deduce, is highly likely to simply exacerbate the problem.

It should also be noted that people with rebellious natures are vital to the progress of society,  think Martin Luther King and the Suffragettes, to take just two examples from history.

4) Devaluation of the Child’s Innate Abilities.

For example, in the UK, children are subjected to standardised testing at a very young age, and, from then on, for the next thirteen years, they are constantly evaluated and compared to their peers.

Those who are unsuited to such an oppressive and stressful evaluation process and are regarded by others as ‘failures’ may well internalise this and start to believe they are ‘of little worth.’ However, they may have great talents, in other areas, that the school fails to identify, nurture and develop.

5) Perfectionism.

Some students who are constantly pushed to do better and better, and who equate their human worth with their academic performance, may become obsessive about always doing exceptionally well, and develop the debilitating attitude of perfectionism that plagues them throughout their lives.

6) Reinforcement of the Economic Divide:

Research shows that those students who come from well off homes do better at school, on average, than those less fortunate children who come from poor families. This is because, for example, wealthier parents are able to provide their children with extra learning resources (such as books) and private tuition.

As these children from wealthier backgrounds do better, they tend to go on to earn more in their careers than the less fortunate children go on to earn, thus perpetuating the economic divide.

Reasons Why ADHD Might Be Being Overdiagnosed

Perfectionism Linked To Having Inflexible, Authoritarian Parents

Social Learning Theory And Childhood Maltreatment.


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


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