The Affective Phenomena of Childhood Trauma: Can Experiential Learning, Social Emotional Learning Enhance Healthy Brain Development?

The Affective Phenomena of Childhood Trauma: Can Experiential Learning, Social Emotional Learning Enhance Healthy Brain Development?

Claire Steele (Oregon State University, USA) and Theresa Neimann (Oregon State University, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9775-9.ch011
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Childhood trauma and stress affects learning. John Dewey's theories of progressive, experiential education data suggest that experiential education positively correlates not only to comprehension, but also to attitudes towards learning as a whole, and towards student self-esteem and ultimately brain health. However, experiential learning is affected by brain development and childhood stress. Experiential learning, particularly project-based curricula, have demonstrated positive outcomes in students from grades K-12. When assessments are adjusted to reflect content actually covered by a given project, students who learned through the project-based method performed significantly better than students in the comparison group, suggesting that experiential education enhances brain development and brain health in the areas of social emotional learning and improves comprehension and retention of material.
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Pedagogy must take into consideration the learning engagement of the entire person. Teaching and learning are complex processes. They include more than cognitive approaches because the learner comes to class with a plethora of childhood experiences that can interfere with the learning process. Specifically, toxic stress that occurred in a person’s childhood can affect brain functioning many years later. If a child’s stress response systems are activated and stay activated for sustained periods of time, toxic stress can result, especially in the absence of a protecting shelter of a caring adult relationship (Blair & Raver, 2012; Evans & Kim, 2013). Research shows that extended exposure to stress and stress hormones affect a child’s immune system, making him/her more vulnerable to both acute and chronic illness, which can have long term effects on the structure and functioning of the child’s developing brain (Gunnar et al., 2009).

Childhood stressors such as abuse, neglect and poverty has been established as sources of toxic stress that has been proven to affect learning even after the child has grown into an adult (Fernald & Gunnar, 2009). Neuroscientist, Pat Levitt calls childhood trauma such as poverty a neurotoxin (2015): the circumstances that accompany poverty—what a National Scientific Council report summarized as “overcrowding, noise, substandard housing, separation from parent(s), exposure to violence, family turmoil,” and other forms of extreme stress—can be toxic to the developing brain, just like drug or alcohol abuse. These conditions provoke the body to release hormones such as cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal cortex. Brief bursts of cortisol can help a person manage difficult situations, but high stress over the long term can be disastrous (Blair & Raver, 2012; Neimann, Stelson & Malecek, 2017). Extended periods of high stress during childhood have been demonstrated to negatively affect a child’s ability to learn with long term effects extending into adulthood (Yoshikawa, Aber & Beardslee, 2012). Experiential learning is a pathway to social emotional learning which can offset childhood stress by providing opportunities for children to connect learning to their interests (Seifert & Sutton, 2009). It has shown to positively enhance healthy brain development.

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