What is Neuroplasticity and How it Can Help Students with Childhood Trauma Heal

Trauma is such a difficult thing to heal from, especially complex trauma, but there is hope! Our brains have an amazing ability to adapt and create new pathways, helping students who suffer from childhood trauma to heal over time. 

What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form, change, and recognize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning from experience or following injury. In other words, our brains can create new connections. This allows us to use repetitive experiences over time to create healthier patterns in our brains. 

How Neuroplasticity can Help Students Heal from Childhood Trauma

Through new, healthy repetitive patterns, we can help those with trauma undo maladaptive habits and increase stress tolerance. While many schools focus on implementing broad strategies throughout districts and schools to help positive changes occur, we also want to spend some time talking about what brain science teaches us about circumstances that allow us to best harness neuroplasticity.

Now let’s look at some ways that we can implement the power of neuroplasticity on a more personal level to help students heal from childhood trauma.

Focus on the Individual

Neuroplasticity is variable; what works for one student may not work well or in the same way for another. For example, some students may need more positive sensory stimuli, while others may need more repetitions over time. This means that as an educator, you’ll need to focus on and tailor neuroplasticity techniques on an individual basis.

There’s an Age Decline

Keep in mind that neuroplasticity declines as we age. The earlier that interventions can begin with students with trauma, the better. Neuroplasticity continues throughout the duration of our lives, but it requires less repetition in earlier developmental stages. This is what makes educators such a crucial part of helping children with trauma heal, because of their age and the sheer amount of time they spend in school.

Synaptic Pruning

So far we have focused a lot on making new connections. However, part of neuroplasticity is “synaptic pruning.” This is when our brains get rid of neural connections we no longer utilize and strengthens the ones we use repeatedly. As you use new repetitive stimuli, over time, not only will the student create new connections that help them heal, but they will also prune the old connections that cause maladaptive habits. Keep in mind that students do not respond immediately to positive interventions; it takes time and lots of repetition to harness neuroplasticity for healing trauma.

Constant Occurrence

Neuroplasticity is always occurring, even outside of the classroom. If a student is receiving stimuli in another environment that is inconsistent with the techniques being used in the classroom, it may mean that old neural pathways (potentially maladaptive ones) are being strengthened and the child may have little to no progress in healing. This is why it is extremely important that everyone is on the same page when it comes to the care plan for the student with trauma. This means that parents, educators, other caregivers, and leaders in the student’s life must be on the same page and using the same techniques!

The Main Takeaways

So what are the main takeaways from this? First, we must work to create systems and structures that work in concert to provide students with positive experiences to develop new and strengthen existing healthy neural pathways. Second, we need to ensure that the interventions we are using with students with childhood trauma are consistent and repetitive over time in order to create the most conducive environment for healing.