The following article, adapted from an Every Child magazine by Dr Judith Howard, examines the way that trauma affects cognitive development and the ways early childhood educators can support children who have been impacted by a traumatic event.
Increasingly, care and education providers are becoming aware of the prevalence of complex trauma and its potential impact on learning and life outcomes for children.
New research is explaining the impact of this trauma on developing brains and nervous systems, which can lead to emotional, relational and behavioural concerns that can continue throughout the schooling years and even extend into adulthood. This research draws from a combination of the science of child and adolescent development, the prevalence and impact of adverse childhood experiences and the neurobiological and sometimes intergenerational consequences of complex trauma (Craig, 2016).
Thankfully, research is also showing that these concerns can be resolved through what is referred to as trauma-informed or trauma-aware practice.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the earlier this happens, the better!
Attachment and neural development during early childhood
During the earliest stages of development, as infants interact with ever-expanding physical and social environments, pathways of interconnecting neurons (cells within the nervous system) are rapidly forming and connecting.
Attachment theory and neuroscience explain the importance of safe and regular interactions during this time, where infants and carers respond to the other’s verbal and facial cues.
- During these interactions, neurons in the infant’s brain that manage emotion and relating are firing.
- Sometimes, this starts in the brain of the adult and then quickly these same types of neurons will fire in the same parts of the infant’s brain.
- Or sometimes, this starts in the infant’s brain and quickly the same reaction occurs in the adult’s brain.
- When this happens, each cannot help but respond in a way that engages with the experience of the other and, as children grow and mature, this process happens more and more quickly.
These neurons are known as ‘mirror neurons’, and this process forms the foundation of attachment, which matures to assist with future relationships through capacities like compassion and empathy (Ho, MacDonald & Swain, 2014).
As developing children move more, they increasingly explore their environments and interact with others. Initially, they need the carer to be the ‘secure base’ (one who encourages the child to be confident enough to explore) and then to be the ‘safe haven’ (one who helps co-regulate emotions when the child becomes upset or frightened during exploration) (Powell, Cooper, Hoffman & Marvin, 2014).
When this ‘mirror neuron’, ‘secure base / safe haven’ activity happens multiple times a day, during every day of early childhood, rapidly forming neural pathways are reinforced and children develop capacities to become social, more autonomous and more successful at emotional self-regulation.
The impact of complex trauma on early development
Children who experience complex trauma can miss out on environmental and social activity that is necessary to stimulate healthy and adaptive neural development. Neural pathways that should be reinforced may not be, and those that are not helpful (such as fear or anxiety pathways) may be reinforced (Stein & Kendall, 2014).
If a child does not regularly experience safe, relational interactions during early childhood, there can be a negative impact on the child’s ability to self-regulate emotions and to relate to others. Of course, this impact is exacerbated when interactions involve harm.
Much of this impact becomes evident through concerning behaviour and an overly sensitive ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response (Thompson, Hannan & Miron, 2014). Children can become verbally and physically aggressive towards adults, other children or their environments can run from classrooms or buildings, or can experience a concerning psychological and relational withdrawal.
These responses may have been adaptive for children during the harmful experiences they have suffered, but they can become maladaptive and habitual in places that are safe and benign (like child care, kindergarten or school).
Neuroscience helps to explain why these young children can feel unsafe and why they can suffer bouts of significant emotional dysregulation. There is also now appreciation that behaviours may not simply be learnt or chosen, but rather can be due to maladaptive development and functioning of the nervous system during critical periods of growth.
Trauma-aware practice in early childhood settings
Neuroscience is also providing a different template of possibility for addressing these concerns and enhancing educational and life outcomes for children through trauma-aware practice.
Trauma-aware practice is grounded on the premise that, while the very plastic or malleable nature of developing brains can leave children vulnerable to the neural impacts of complex trauma, neural repair can be achieved through consistent practice to address the harm (Evans & Coccoma, 2014).
It is becoming increasingly clear that the relational context of early childhood education and care provides a valuable opportunity to do just this.
Professionals have great capacity to:
- provide environments that feel safe for children
- engage in regular and predictable interactions with each infant or child in their care—with a purposeful focus on those who they suspect or know have experienced complex trauma
- scaffold activity to help children with developing skills to recognise and manage their emotions.
If this work is done in a non-punitive manner, filled with unconditional positive regard, children will receive the ‘neural medicine’ they need to recover from trauma.
Early childhood settings that capitalise on the substantial amount of time they have in contact with these young children are well placed to begin to ameliorate the impact of traumatic experience.
Craig, S. E. (2016). Trauma-sensitive schools: Learning communities transforming children’s lives, K-5. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Evans, A., & Coccoma, P. (2014). Trauma-informed care: How neuroscience influences practice. London, UK: Routledge.
Ho, S. S., MacDonald, A., & Swain, J. E. (2014). Associative and sensorimotor learning for parenting involves mirror neurons under the influence of oxytocin. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(2), 203–204.
Powell, B., Cooper, G., Hoffman, K., & Marvin, B. (2014). The Circle of Security Intervention: Enhancing attachment in early parent–child relationships. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Stein, P. T., & Kendall, J. (2014). Psychological trauma and the developing brain: Neurologically based interventions for troubled children. New York, NY: Routledge.
Thompson, K. L., Hannan, S. M., & Miron, L. R. (2014). Fight, flight, and freeze: Threat sensitivity and emotion dysregulation in survivors of chronic childhood maltreatment. Personality and Individual Differences, 69, 28–32.