Stop Blaming Children for Learning Loss

4 min read

Learning loss has captured the attention of policy leaders, many of whom are sounding the alarm and calling for teachers to be stricter with grading and for children to hit the books, suggesting that laziness and lack of accountability are the bedrock of the problem. However, a recent report that the U.S. childhood poverty rate more than doubled in 2022 suggests that an alternative approach may be needed.

Children’s academic success is an important focus, and we need to not only understand the full impact of COVID-19 on their learning but also generate effective support to boost outcomes for all children, including those with developmental language disorder. Yet in all of the conversations surrounding learning for US children, we are missing one critical thread: the role of stress and trauma on achievement.

I have worked in public education for 25 years and have witnessed the impact of stress on children’s learning trajectories. I also understand firsthand as an adoptive mother how this affects learning irrespective of a child’s intelligence or academic ability. Most people associate stress and trauma with extreme events, such as school shootings, war, weather-related catastrophes, loss of a loved one. But trauma happens anytime a person experiences an event in which they feel alone and helpless, including separation, poverty, illness, and ongoing stress.

Since 2020, more than 12.4 percent of US children are now living in poverty, over 142,000 children lost a primary caregiver, and children from historically marginalized communities account for 65 percent of those experiencing loss. By April 2021, over 61,000 children were hospitalized secondary to COVID-19 infection. Children have also witnessed the toll of illness and job loss on close family members, and have felt the ongoing stress and uncertainty over the past three years. Indeed, children experiencing mental health concerns are at an all-time high.

As explained by Drs. Siegel and Bryson in The Whole-Brain Child, our brains have two primary components: the “upstairs brain” which is responsible for thinking and learning, and the “downstairs brain” which is responsible for monitoring our environment and keeping us safe. When our bodies sense danger, our upstairs brain goes offline and the downstairs brain is activated.

Typically, activation of the downstairs brain is temporary. However, when a child experiences prolonged stress or trauma, the child’s downstairs brain remains in hypervigilant mode even after the experience is over, causing negative short and long-term effects on learning. The upstairs brain never has a chance to come back fully online. When this happens, has a child lost all they have learned? No, they simply cannot access nor add new knowledge. It’s as if the learning is locked behind doors that cannot be opened until the body senses that it is safe. Given the ongoing ramifications of COVID-19, many children are still living in their downstairs brains.

We have strategies for supporting children through stressful situations—strategies known to calm the downstairs brain and allow the upstairs brain to function again. These include sensory play, mindfulness, nutrition, and rest. Increasing academic demands and accountability only serves to exacerbate stress, thereby keeping the downstairs brain activated. It’s no wonder academic outcomes continue to decline. Indeed, if we truly want to mitigate learning loss for all children, then the solution lies in doing the exact opposite of what we are seeing in most public education systems.

It’s time to stop blaming children for being unmotivated. They aren’t the problem. We need to give children’s brains and bodies time to heal. There isn’t a deadline for learning. If we continue forcing children to “do more school” without addressing the real effects of stress, we will be playing catch-up for years to come.

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