Loss and trauma are something many children are affected by. But the consequences of this trauma and loss are often overlooked. I, myself, have experienced trauma during my school years. During my junior year of high school, my best friend passed away due to complications due to Cystic Fibrosis. She had been in and out of the hospital for a few years and right before she passed she was in the hospital for a month with pneumonia and superinfection in her lungs.
Ever since her passing, I have noticed a significant change in my motivation and school performance, going from straight A’s and B’s to getting C’s and even failing a class. Traumatic experiences cause lasting effects on the student’s memory and cognition.
The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders defines trauma as “a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing” (Citation). Examples; the loss of a loved one, abuse, neglect, and survivors of natural disasters.
Trauma can come in two separate forms; acute or complex (Geeraert 1). Acute trauma is surprising and unprecedented events like natural disasters or the death of a loved one. Complex trauma is repeated traumatizing experiences such as abuse or maltreatment (Bell, Limberg, & Robinson 140). Both, however, are potentially damaging to the growing child’s development. The way trauma manifests depends on the frequency, the severity of the incident(s), and the resilience of the individual. Trauma heightens the risk of poor functioning in the behavioral, cognitive, social, and emotional domains of a child.
While the brain is the most malleable from the prenatal period through infancy, trauma can still affect the brain throughout the individual’s life. How the trauma affects the individual depends on the age of the individual and resiliency. During the first few years of life, the brain organizes its structures from the “bottom up, from the least to the most complex areas” (Perry 242) meaning if a lower part is affected, communication with the high parts of the brain will also be affected. If trauma occurs during these first few years of life it can cause disordered brain development (Perry 242). Traumatic events will have a different impact on the brain depending on the age of the individual subject to trauma. If the trauma is in early childhood, it will affect the brain through decreased prefrontal cortex activity (Geeraert 14) which can lead to cognitive difficulties.
Trauma has been shown to induce post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, and depression. These disorders can cause disruptions in the individual’s ability to learn. PTSD can cause nightmares that wake the individual up and keep them from getting a good night’s rest. This prevents memories from being transcribed from short-term memory to long-term memory.
There are many different explanations for the decline in school performance caused by trauma and loss. PTSD can lead to a hyperactive nervous system (where there is a sense of continuous threat). Depression can lead to a loss of motivation and slows down cognitive functions. Mood states can overwhelm the ability for self-regulation and lead to problems with behavioral control and produce disruptive behavior (Dyregrov 80).