Complex PTSD: Trauma, Learning, and Behavior in the Classroom
Complex post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) occurs with repeated ongoing exposure to traumatic events. Often CPTSD is a result of early traumatic relationships with caregivers. In this article we consider the effects of early traumatic relationships on learning.
Many children with a history of trauma have trouble with learning in the classroom and do not perform as well as their peers. The connection between early interpersonal trauma and learning is particularly relevant when considering the ability to maintain attention and concentration. Often, early traumatic relationships impair more than emotion regulation abilities. Cognitive capacities are also deeply affected since the ability to focus and concentrate is largely dependent upon emotion regulation.
Early attachment relationships and learning
Early relationships have a direct impact on cognitive, social and emotional development. This is because an infant/child who is raised in a safe and supportive environment has ample opportunity for exploration as well as the availability of comfort from a trusted caregiver.
One of the ways infants learn is through play and exploration of their environment. When thinking about this stage of development it is crucial to understand that an infant’s biological system is not mature enough to calm itself in times of fear or upset. This is why young children and infants reach for a trusted adult when they feel fear or uncertainty. In a secure relationship, opportunities abound for curiosity and exploration. At the same time, the infant is protected from unhealthy levels of stress, when he/she needs comfort, it is available.
Attachment researchers call this phenomena a “secure base” in which the caregiver encourages the child to lay, with providing safety and security for the infant when needed. Exploratory play coupled with protection provide an optimal environment for learning. Researchers have noted traumatized infants tend to spend less time in exploratory play (Hoffman, Marvin, Cooper & Powell, 2006).
Let’s imagine a young child in a playground. She is less than a year old and not quite walking on her own yet. With mom nearby she can explore, perhaps by playing in the sandbox and learning how her toy car moves differently over sand in comparison to the kitchen floor at home. She is learning important information about the world. While she plays while she is keeping an eye on mom, making sure she is near. If anything happens to cause fear, perhaps a big dog strays onto the playground, a predictable scenario plays out. The child begins to cry, afraid of the dog. Mom is here to help. She picks up her infant and soothes her distress, walks away from the animal, and relatively soon, the infant is calm again.
In a traumatic relationship, mom may not recognize she needs to help her child. She may not be afraid of dogs and does not understand the infant’s reaction. She may decide to let the infant learn about dogs without her help. Perhaps the child gets bit by the dog or is allowed to scream frantically while the big, unfamiliar animal investigates her, and still mom does not react in an appropriate calming way. She may let her child learn the dog is safe (or not safe) without getting involved. Alternatively, she may escalate the situation with her own fear of dogs and scare the child even more.
In terms of emotional and cognitive development, these two infants are dealing with very different internal and external environments. Internally, the traumatized infant’s developing nervous system is exposed to ongoing heightened states of stress hormones that circulate through the developing brain and nervous system. Since the infant is left on her own to recover from a traumatic event, all of her resources are required to bring herself back to a state of balance. Researchers in the field of neuropsychology have pointed out that when an infant is required to manage its own stress without help, he or she can do nothing else (Schore, 2001). All energies are dedicated to calming the brain and body from significant stress. In this situation, valuable opportunities for social and cognitive learning are lost.