Challenging Behavior and the Impact on Learning, Ages 13-22

By Jane Crecco, MA, MSEd – Training and Support Specialist
Recruitment, Training and Support Center (RTSC), FCSN

behaviorStudents with complex childhood trauma can have severe responses to typical challenges of adolescence which makes it difficult for them to learn and teach. In order for these students to learn efficiently, students must feel safe in supportive classrooms. When a student fails to stay in good control, positive behavioral supports can be in place to allow the student to re-align his or her behavior. If a school diligently follows one of the many evidence-based social-emotional curriculum, the student can develop appropriate emotional responses to everyday stressors.

Unfortunately, for students who have suffered toxic stress or complex childhood trauma, the challenge is even greater. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), almost half (47.9%) of students in a typical classroom have experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences or (ACEs), which can serve as a measure for childhood trauma. Complex childhood trauma influences brain development and learning and the effects can be more profound as a student enters adolescence. Common factors such as teenage hormonal changes, the process of developing their own personality, and the emphasis on peer relations (including romantic ones) thrust youth into adulthood even though they have not yet developed “adult” age-appropriate social and emotional responses. This can result in classroom disruptions like verbal outbursts, late arrivals, school refusal, and disciplinary removal. Further complicating this situation, many middle and high school teachers feel unprepared to manage a classroom with students with trauma backgrounds.1

The impact of poor nutrition and food insecurity can contribute to these challenges. In some large school districts (e.g. Boston, Springfield and Worcester included), 100% of students can receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch through the Community Eligibility Provision, an indicator of the number of families living under the federal poverty level.

Research by the CDC also indicates that a lack of sleep can negatively affect academic success. Typical adolescents need about 9.25 hours of sleep every night. Most students get two hours less than that. Students with trauma backgrounds also have chronically high levels of the hormone cortisol, which, along with serotonin and adrenaline, help control sleep schedules. Problems occur when cortisol levels do not decrease enough for deep, uninterrupted, restful sleep. These hormone levels rise as sunlight increases, allowing our bodies and brains to wake up. Students who wake after a restless night may have trouble focusing on schoolwork, and can be fidgety and irritable in the classroom. The impact of these conditions can be a root cause for challenging behavioral issues.

Another factor can be that adolescence is a time when social relationships are immensely important. A student who has not yet developed the social-emotional skills to form lasting, healthy friendships will be at risk for depression and isolation. Many youth who suffer from childhood trauma have not developed the ability to feel in control of their behavior and social environment, and lack confidence about their future. Successful relationships require the ability to empathize and understand another person’s perspective. Physiological changes and delays in the brain development of students with toxic stress may leave them behind their peers in developing these skills. As a result, relationships may be especially hard to make; self-esteem may plummet, and long-standing mental health issues can develop.

How can school districts help these students? While solutions may seem overwhelming, some schools have made a difference in their students’ lives. We now have examples of high schools which have changed their approach to discipline from zero tolerance to trauma-informed interventions. Paper Tigers, a new documentary by James Redford, is an intimate look into the lives of some of the students at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington which examines the “promise of Trauma Informed Communities.” This is a new movement that is showing great promise in healing youth struggling with the dark legacy of adverse childhood experiences.

Editor’s note: The third article in a three-part series on how challenging behaviors influence the ability to learn. Part one, ages 0-5, appeared in the Spring edition of Newsline. Part two, ages 6-12 appeared in the Summer edition of Newsline.