Challenging Behavior and the Impact on Learning, Ages 0-5

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

toddlerWhen children come from chaotic backgrounds where stressors are “toxic,” their learning is disrupted. While caregivers and teachers have suspected this for some time, evidence detailed in a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics1, Helping Foster and Adoptive Families Cope With Trauma, confirms this belief. Brain development in young children is sensitive to toxic stress and it can harm the part of the brain that regulates reactions. If a student becomes anxious or fearful at school, feelings that are easily triggered by anything that recalls their early trauma, the brain will not be able to process any new learning.

During the years from birth to five, trauma can affect the formation of learning’s basic building blocks. In early learning settings a child may display severe tantrums, be aggressive with other children and staff, and show an inability to engage with others. For this child, these behaviors are an attempt to escape her fearful feelings but are extremely disruptive to a classroom. The reason a child feels threatened can include noise, lots of children in a small space, or over-stimulating activities. There might also be internal triggers such as the loud voice of an adult, demands made in a firm way, or smells that recall a time when abuse or neglect occurred. The child’s brain has conditioned itself to react for survival — becoming aggressive or maintaining a very low profile are two common reactions. While in this survival mode, a student’s brain cannot access the processes that result in learning.

Efforts are underway to determine the best methods for caregivers and educators of children who are or have been subjected to adverse conditions in their home or community. Experts agree the place to start is in understanding how trauma impacts behavior and learning. Safe and supportive settings that nurture positive feelings for all children increase the odds that these children will learn appropriate coping skills. In early education, the focus is on teaching emotional self-regulation alongside skill building in reading and math. For students in jeopardy of missing out on learning due to their harsh environments, they will have a chance to keep up with their peers and share the wonderful feelings of being successful at school.