Recently there have been some exciting discussions throughout education on the impact of trauma on students. While there is a wealth of research documenting the impact of trauma on a child’s health and ability to learn, there is often a lack of clarity about instructional strategies for teachers.  Fortunately, mindset intervention research has consistently targeted those students most in need, with exciting success.  

Before diving into the role of a growth mindset in helping students cope with trauma let’s take a quick look at the recent research that has fueled much of the trauma discussion.  The Adverse Childhood Experiences research, (conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente) examined the relationships between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and long term life outcomes such as health, relationships, and income.  Gathering data from over 17,000 participants, the researchers surveyed patients on the frequency of three categories of adverse childhood experiences: abuse, neglect, and family/household challenges.

These adverse experiences were fairly common, with almost two-thirds of participants reporting at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs. Each person’s “ACE score” was a sum of the different categories of questions, and was used to assess cumulative childhood stress. Overall, researchers concluded that as a person’s “ACE score” increased, so did the prevalence of over 20 negative life outcomes ranging from poor work performance to heart disease.

While the participants in the ACEs research were dominated by largely middle class white white adults, it is a fair assertion to suggest, in general, that children living in meager circumstances are more at risk for adverse experiences. As Danfeng Soto-Vigil Koon at the University of California Berkeley school of Law explains, “Research suggests that children living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty demonstrate trauma symptoms and coping mechanisms that may appear disruptive in schools, such as anxiety, hypervigilance.”  

In addition to understanding the impact of poverty on health and learning its importance, we must also appreciate how common the experience of growing up under these stressful circumstances is becoming.  Nationally, over half of the students in the United States are now on the “free or reduced lunch” program, due to low income. Furthermore, nearly every major U.S. city has what Stanford researchers classified as a large or massive income achievement gap. For example, Stanford’s Sean Reardon did a comprehensive review of the relationship between academic achievement and family income in the United States over the last 50 years, and found that “the income achievement gap is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.”  

Reardon was also able to examine achievement and economic data for school districts across the United States, and found students in the poorest districts are four grade levels behind the richest districts students.  This research confirms my own experiences, as well as those of many educators.  Not only is the impact of poverty profound, but it is also becoming alarmingly common.  Teaching students who arrive at school working through personal trauma and growing up under adverse circumstances is becoming a regular part of K-12 education.


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What can we do about it?

Working with students experiencing abuse, neglect, and family instability on a consistent basis has taught me some valuable lessons. In particular, no matter how badly I wanted to rescue these kids from their situation, there was almost nothing I could do to change their circumstances.  Similarly, no matter how angry I became about the inequality I witnessed, there was almost nothing I could do to change it. Over time, I learned that while we cannot prevent kids from experiencing the realities of growing up under adverse conditions,  we can indeed support them and teach them how to use these experiences to grow.

Fortunately, there is a strong research base to assist us in exploring a framework for teaching the resilience and coping skills that can lead to inspiring outcomes.  In particular, the research highlights two key components to resilience: First, a sense of control over one’s life, and second, supportive relationships with caring adults.  While the importance of relationships with students in trauma should not be overlooked, the focus of this article is how a growth mindset can help students maintain a sense of having control over their life under traumatic circumstances.

George Bonanno heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia University, and has been studying resilience for nearly 25 years.  Bonanno has come to conclude that a central element of resilience is perception:  Does the child perceive an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? Bonanno explains: “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic.”

Every adverse experience or frightening event can be traumatic or not, depending on how each person attributes and responds to the event. This is an important distinction--experiencing adversity doesn’t guarantee that suffering or the alarming consequences outlined in the ACEs research will occur.  Rather, according to Bonanno, how each individual responds to these events is what predicts subsequent outcomes. Slide 1 version 2

Building on this idea, researchers have found lasting, positive results can be achieved by training people to reframe their initial response to the adverse experiences.  Martin Seligman, former head of the American Psychological Association and often recognized as the founder of the field of positive psychology,  has spent his career studying exceptional humans that overcome adversity.  Like Bonanno suggested, Seligman’s work centered around training people to change how they attribute and respond to life events.  Shifting their attribution from internal to external (“bad events aren’t my fault”), from global to specific (“this is one event not an indication that something is wrong with me”), and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it’s fixed”) made them more successful and less prone to depression.   

Seligman’s research lead him to partner with the the Department of Defense to support soldiers struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Therefore, his insights on trauma are especially salient. Seligman’s research allows him to offer us the important reminder that humans have been overcoming trauma throughout history, and far and away the usual response to adversity is resilience. As he explains, a common response to adverse experiences is a relatively brief episode of depression and anxiety that ultimately results in traumatic growth.  Unfortunately, he warns us, we often come to see the temporary anxiety and depression as permanent and signs of PTSD, rather than as a natural response to tragic events.  

Once a person's interpretation of an adverse experience becomes fixed, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because it also becomes the narrative and explanatory style of the child growing up in adverse conditions.  However, as Seligman suggests, if a person is able to maintain a growth mindset, in the long run they will be better able to demonstrate resilience and actually grow from the traumatic experience.  This is what led Seligman to focus on helping soldiers returning from battle shift their attribution style from fixed to growth, to see the adverse experiences as temporary and specific, so they can adjust and develop healthy coping skills.  

Slide2 version 2Seligman’s work offers educators insight into what we can do to support students coping with ACEs. His work on “learned helplessness” sheds light on the impact of the behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes of those who have come to believe they cannot control their environment or the outcomes they experience.  When students develop this sense of helplessness, the motivation to attempt change is lost.  When someone no longer believes they can improve the quality of their life, the focus shifts from improving their circumstances to learning to cope with the circumstances as they are.  Naturally, then, there is often a consistent decline in performance.  

Seligman work suggests this sense of control is a deciding variable between learned helplessness and learned optimism. A student with learned helplessness interprets these negative events with a fixed mindset, believing the cause of their troubles is permanent and pervasive--this bad experience is going to keep happening and will continue to happen in other situations in the future.  In contrast, those with what Seligman termed learned optimism adopt an attributional style that resembles a growth mindset  and creates a temporary and situational narrative.  

More recently, the Mindset Scholars Network has continued to build an impressive research base which consistently demonstrates the impact of mindset interventions with those students most in need.  For example, recently Claro, Paunesku and Dweck published their findings from a nationwide sample of high school students in Chile.  They found that students from lower-income families were less likely to hold a growth mindset than their wealthier peers, but those who did hold a growth mindset seemed to have a buffer against the effects of poverty on achievement.  

Additionally, Yeager, Lee and Jamison documented how mindset interventions can alter  students’ responses to stressful situations.  Not only did students who received a mindset intervention demonstrate healthier  physical responses to stress and superior performance, the effects seemed to have a sustained impact.  This research, like Seligman’s and Bonanno’s, highlights concrete steps educators can take to help students growing up under adverse circumstances.  Fortunately, each year more and more educators are discovering effective ways to apply mindset interventions to help those most in need.  Here is a recent example of one high-poverty school in New York City explaining the positive impact of growth mindset teaching on their students growing up in poverty.

Growth Mindset: A catalyst for Post-Traumatic Resilience

As an educator who has consistently worked with students experiencing frequent adverse childhood experiences, I have often marveled at their ability to cope and overcome.  The courage and resilience many young people demonstrate under these conditions is a regular source of inspiration.  Unfortunately, in spite of my best efforts, I’ve made some critical mistakes that undermined the ability of many of my students to transcend their circumstances.  

These mistakes are what brought me to the mindset research. The first error was in failing to help my students focus on what they have control over.  For any educator, especially a novice, meeting the needs of students who have experienced trauma can be overwhelming.  Finding a way to help an entire class develop resilience, support each other, and create a sense of belonging while meeting the myriad of pacing calendars is a tall order for even the most skilled, which I was not.  Fortunately the research base around mindset and resilience has advanced a great deal, and there are a number of resources available for educators to efficiently incorporate mindset interventions into their instruction.  If we consider the number of youth today growing up under adverse circumstances, it may be critical to embed growth mindset and resilience training into the daily curriculum if we are to begin providing high-quality, trauma-informed care.

The second error, and the more impactful, was how my own fixed mindset undermined my expectations.  As a novice educator, I saw the adverse experiences students were bringing with them to class, and it became a struggle to maintain high expectations.  As educators working in high-poverty schools or with students from adverse circumstances, one of the greatest challenges is learning to balance empathy for a child’s situation with high expectations for the child.  If we as educators adopt a fixed mindset about what our students can achieve, due to their circumstances we can easily cause our students to fall victim to lowered expectations--which, as Rosenthal’s landmark research highlights, are often a driving force in student achievement.  

In order to better support students growing up in adverse circumstances, I had to learn to maintain my own growth mindset--refusing to believe circumstances will define the success of any student I work with.  Like many educators, I was driven to education due to a deep desire to help those most in need.  Additionally, like many educators I’ve experienced first-hand the deep frustration and sense of helplessness that comes from realizing the size of the obstacles many children face.  Fortunately, while often there is little we can do to change their circumstances, if we adopt a growth mindset about what is possible and teach it to our students, we can better empower and support them.  Personally I’ve come to see why mindset researchers focus on those at risk:  We teach our students a growth mindset not to avoid adversity, but to empower our students  to respond effectively and overcome.