Understanding the impacts of your child's early experiences on learning


Andrea Chatwin
Focus on Adoption magazine

The degree of stress your child experienced prior to adoption may significantly impact how his or her brain develops.

As an adoptive parent and a therapist, I am keenly interested in how my child’s early experiences impact her classroom performance and ability to learn. A recent experience at my daughter’s school reinforced how critical it is for teachers and parents to have information that will help educate them in a practical way to respond to children who have had significant early stress or trauma and are struggling to adapt to the school environment.

After a few months of kindergarten, my daughter’s teacher approached me with some serious concerns. She reported that Kerlinda was having difficulties remaining on task, evidenced unusual jealousy when the teacher attended to other students, and was easily angered if another child interfered with her intentions. The teacher was very frustrated with Kerlinda’s behavior and said she would now be “coming down hard” in an effort to eliminate it.

After some discussion on early brain development and some well chosen reading material about the impact of early stress on subsequent stressful situations, my daughter’s teacher indicated that she felt “enlightened.” Her approach to Kerlinda changes dramatically once she saw the problem differently. Instead of relying on punitive and fear-based responses to eliminate the behavior, this teacher became a behavior detective and was able to recognize the maladaptive coping strategies Kerlinda was using in an attempt to manage her current stress.

When she saw the behavior differently, my daughter’s teacher responded differently and, within a few months, Kerlinda had adapted well to her new setting and was confident in her teacher’s ability to assist her in managing her emotions when they became too much for her to handle on her own. This developing trust in her teacher reduced her sense of environmental threat and opened her mind to be able to learn and create.

Stress starts early

Your child’s brain, both before and after birth, developed in response to his or her environment. The impact of stress on a child’s brain can start as early as during pregnancy when a birth mother is undernourished, unsafe or in a state of chronic stress. The brain pathways that are established early require specific intervention later on, and the length of time and degree of stress your child experience prior to adoption may significantly impact how his or her brain develops.

High levels of stress over long periods of time can impair the development of an important part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the human brain that is responsible for the executive functions: things like making plans and following directions, controlling and focusing attention, inhibiting impulsive behaviours and developing the ability to use recently learned information in making decisions.

These early experiences can impact a child’s developmental milestones and later functioning, particularly when they enter school. With the introduction of a new and stressful environment, a child’s early patterns of managing stress become evident. Understanding how your child’s early stress responses impact their current functioning, particularly in an educational setting, is crucial to intervening effectively. The good news is that the brain is capable of developing new pathways that will allow your child to find new and more adaptive patterns of behavior. New brain research suggests that the human brain can develop the ability to calm oneself in the face of stress - its “soothing repertoire” – until it is about 27 years old.

How to help

There are some clear directions you can take when responding to your child’s difficulties at school. Here are some practical strategies that can offer parents and teachers some guidance when supporting a child who experienced early trauma and neglect. You can offer these suggestions to your child’s teacher while understanding that it will require a greater level of commitment for them to implement these in their daily classroom routines.

1. Develop a positive relationship with the child. This can start with simple strategies such as greeting the child each morning with a welcoming smile and an attitude of acceptance no matter what the day before looked like. Be careful to deal with inappropriate behavior privately to avoid unnecessary shame experiences.

2. Watch the age difference. A child’s chronological age is not necessarily descriptive of their emotional functioning. Expecting an eight year old to respond as a typical eight year old when their emotional functioning is more consistent with a four year old is unrealistic and frustrating for both the adult and the child.

3. Be consistent and predictable. Follow the child’s need when you can. When you need to set a limit be firm, clear and stand strong even if there is a storm!

4. Model and narrate for the child the behavior you want and expect. The language we choose to use with hurt children can communicate the difference between teaching and shaming. When a child behaves in a way that is inappropriate, this is an opportunity for new learning.

5. Recognize that delayed gratification is very hard for children. Acknowledge their need or request as quickly as possible and indicate your intention to meet the need. If you are not able to meet the need quickly, indicate when you will be available to them and acknowledge that waiting can be difficult.

6. Focus on behaviour not punishment. Punishment is rarely, if ever, effective, and more often damaging. By shifting the focus from punishment to understanding the behavior, a teacher and parent’s response will be more in tune with the child’s behaviour and more likely to impact the child. Punishment is often ineffective because the child in his/her own mind does not link the behavior to the negative outcome and thereby assumes that they are either bad or that the teacher/parent is mean.

7. Focus on understanding the behaviour. Become a detective of the child’s behaviour. Is the underlying feeling fear of rejection, humiliation or simply the lack of expectation to succeed? Remember self-esteem is only built when a child experiences success, and he/she may have difficulty finding those situations on his/her own. Sometimes the experiences of success a child needs to move forward and develop confidence need to be artificially created by the caring adults in that child’s circle.

8. Set realistic expectations of progress. One of the most frustrating aspects of working with hurt children is the uneven progress and inconsistency in their ability to manage certain situations. It is difficult to understand why children can manage a particular classroom expectation or a peer interaction one day and not the next. It is easy to assume that this means they are intentionally being uncooperative; however, this is usually not the case.

9. Monitor peer relationships closely Given the child’s emotional age, not supervising peer interactions may be setting the child up for failure. These children require ongoing modeling and reminders of appropriate reactions and behaviours. They may require direct teaching on how to read other children’s emotional reactions. Limiting group size to partners only for classroom activities will reduce anxiety and increase successes.

Andrea Chatwin (MA, CCC) has extensive experience as an early childhood clinician. She specializes in attachment and trauma, particularly focusing on children who have had caregiver losses and placement disruptions. She is a proud adoptive parent and has experienced first-hand the unique challenges of parenting through adoption. Andrea offers home consultation, education and home coaching services to families through A Child’s Song: www.achildssong.ca