Behaviors in the [Math] Classroom

The effects of trauma (broadly defined) show up in a litany of learning behaviors in the classroom. This is especially true in mathematics where the learning difficulties are often very obvious. The problem is not intelligence or behavior: the problem is wiring. When these children sense that their brains don’t work like other children’s brains, math becomes an added layer of trauma. Using trauma-sensitive methods can help them learn.

(Note: For full explanations and research background, see: Craig, Susan. Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children's Lives, K–5. Teachers College Press.)

  1. “It is as if he never listened to anything I was teaching.”

  2. “I called on her, but she refused to answer the question.”

  3. “No matter how much we work on memorizing the multiplication facts, she can’t seem to remember them.”

  4. “I know he knows how to do the work, but he draws a complete blank when tested.”

  5. “She doesn’t focus on her own work, she is always looking around the room, checking the clock, watching everyone who goes down the hallway, etc.”

  6. “We are working on long division, but he can’t seem to remember the order of steps to take to complete the problem.”

  7. “She works so slowly, she is never able to complete the work in the time allotted to the problem.”

  8. “He works on a problem for about one minute and then completely falls apart and wads up the paper.”

  9. “When I give the assignment, she just sits there and refuses to even begin working.”

  10. “He can’t work in a group to solve a problem. Anything a student says to help him sends him into some kind of rage.”

  11. “I carefully teach all the prerequisites to a particular skill, but when I introduce something new, it is as if none of that work connects at all.”

  12. “When I approach her to help her begin to work on the assignment, she tells me that she doesn’t understand and will never be able to understand.”

Effects of Trauma on the Brain and Learning Mathematics


Conceptual Effects of Early Trauma on Mathematical Understanding

  1. Representational Thought: Difficulty in connecting symbolic representations with objects.

  2. Object Permanence: Difficult in mentally holding symbolic representations while problem solving.

  3. Sequential Thinking: Difficulty in sequential and linear concepts and narratives.

Trauma’s effects on the Brain and Learning

  1. Metacognition: Internalized trauma narratives interfere with the development of self-talk necessary for self-regulation, higher-order thinking, and problem solving.

  2. Memorization and Information Retrieval: Structural changes in the brain (including reduced hippocampal volume) affects the encoding of new information, long-term memory retrieval, making associations, and integration of new concepts.

  3. Automaticity: Immediate retrieval of basic skills and information is difficult and slow. It prevents reaching higher levels of thinking unless memory tools are utilized.

  4. Focus: Hypervigilance (constant sense of danger and activation of the Amygdala), anxiety (about lack of care, home situations, etc.), and lack of distraction suppression (including delay of gratification) combine to make concentration almost impossible.

  5. Engagement: Trauma presets the brain (Amygdala) to sense danger in any new experience and avoid any new or unfamiliar activities. (Fight, Flight, Freeze)

Receiving and Responding to Mathematical Instruction

  1. Verbal Instruction: Early trauma affects the understanding of verbal cues and often causes all interactions to be interpreted as threatening— preventing children from understanding verbal instructions.

  2. Responding to Questions: Under stress over production of cortisol (and other stress hormones) inhibit activity in the part of the brain which understands and formulates meanings of words and sentences—leaving the student speechless.

  3. Group Work: Most of the ways that group work is deemed beneficial for learning are inaccessible to children who have experienced early trauma because of reduced volume of the corpus callosum which acts as a conduit between the right and left hemispheres of the brain and integrates verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication.