Lehigh County Health & Medicine Fall 2019 - 23

L C M E D S O C .O R G

HOW TRAUMA
AFFECTS STUDENTS
IN THE CLASSROOM
and what you can do to help

BY LAURA MCHUGH
United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley

I

n 13 years of teaching, Rick Amato
admits there were times he would
make judgments about his students
based on their behavior or disconnect
in the classroom. But today, the principal
of Broughal Middle School in Bethlehem
says he understands and responds to his
students differently.

"When you cannot see inside a child's brain,
you make assumptions that the behavior is
deliberate. In fact, sometimes the children have
so much stress that their brains have been wired
differently," said Amato.
The cause of that stress: exposure to trauma.
"Students who are struggling with trauma
may explode or shut down in school. For
many of the students, it's because things are
happening in their lives, in their home or
in the community. I've come to understand
what an epidemic we're in," added Harrison

Bailey, principal of Bethlehem's Liberty
High School.
Research shows that exposure to childhood
trauma is common. Two-thirds of U.S. adults
are impacted by childhood trauma, and one in
four children have experienced a traumatic event
by the age of 4 years. Also known as Adverse
Childhood Experiences or ACEs, traumatic
events may include physical, emotional or sexual
abuse, neglect, neighborhood or community
violence, bullying and racial discrimination.
"Exposure to trauma often has our students stuck in survival mode, asking 'Am I
safe or not safe?'" remarked Beth Tomlinson,
Senior Director of Education, United Way
of the Greater Lehigh Valley. "To learn,
a child needs to feel both physically and
emotionally safe, so the child's brain can
be open to new ideas and feel confident he
can learn new skills. But the survival brain
is stuck in fight, flight or freeze mode."

Traumatic events, especially if the trauma is
frequent or severe, can create a state of toxic stress,
where our bodies are constantly pumping out
stress hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol,
which over time has a harmful effect on our
brains and bodies. 
"We know that exposure to trauma reshapes
the brain in some really critical ways. When
the parts of the brain that are responsible for
decision-making, regulation of emotion and
behaviors and attention are influenced in negative ways, it can have potentially much more
negative effects than when trauma is experienced
by an adult," said Chris Liang, Ph.D., Chair of
the Lehigh University Department of Education
and Human Services.
Research from the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention shows that what happens to
Continued on page 24
FALL 2019 | Lehigh County Health & Medicine 23


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Lehigh County Health & Medicine Fall 2019

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