Increasing tolerance in students who have experienced trauma - AZEdNews
Sections    Friday March 24th, 2023

Increasing tolerance in students who have experienced trauma

Holiday Park Elementary School Principal Rebecca Leimkuehler And Students During A Movement Break. Photo Courtesy Holiday Park Elementary School.

Our paradigm of education was shattered in a two-week period in March, and as a result superintendents, principals, teachers and paraprofessionals worked to cram years of progress and innovation into days in order to be able to meet the needs of their students.  

Increasing tolerance in students who have experienced trauma Dr.-Chris-Lineberry
Dr. Chris Lineberry, co-founder of Core Purpose Consulting, “I advocate for the whole child – academically, physically and socio-emotionally.”

Most teachers worked throughout the summer to prepare for 3 potential formats of instruction, adding to the challenge was the unknown of which mode of instruction we would engage in:  in-person, hybrid, or online.  

From lecture and hands-on labs in a classroom, teachers were forced to shift to zoom-delivered lessons and kitchen-created labs, followed by a model where teachers at all levels are required to prepare instruction for students both in person and online – many simultaneously.  

Our welding, culinary, and construction programs taught since the beginning of time as hands-on coursework are now teaching using GoPro cameras and zoom.   Music and the Arts have adapted coursework so that students continue to practice, learn, and experience joy daily.  

Over the past few months many of us have had to shift again, with students and staff becoming ill and no subs available, teachers across our state are giving up planning periods in order to cover for sick colleagues.  

As a profession, we have said goodbye to teachers due to health concerns and others who have left the profession all together this year.  

Even with this decrease in staffing and lack of time for planning periods, teachers have given up their lunches in order to attend and participate in IEP meetings, team meetings, and work sessions.  

In the face of criticism and pressure educators have not faltered; we may stumble, but we continue to rise.  Teachers do not complain, they get up, suit up, show up, and never give up.   

Increasing tolerance in students who have experienced trauma Healthy-Learning-Cultures

This is article 8 of 12 in a series for AZEdNews on the school’s role in best practices for creating healthy learning cultures for educators, students, parents and administrators across America. These resources connect with PreK-20 education levels, all learning environments, and all subjects. This article will unpack ways to increase tolerance in students who have experienced trauma by looking through the lens of students, administrators, professionals and educators. 

Our students have exhibited extraordinary understanding of circumstances beyond all of our control.   Our youth have demonstrated patience through the revolving door of change.  Kids across Arizona have been persistent and persevered despite obstacles in their path.   My students have  inspired me with their unwillingness to quit; with their grit.  

Our student councils have continued to work and plan to bring our schools together, even as we are physically apart.   Our athletic teams inspired us with heart, fight, and representation of their schools and communities.   Students in my district have given every adult in our district a newly found sense of pride in who we are as a school district, who they are as individuals, and the optimistic hope of who and what they will become in the future.

The challenges above and the herculean effort to overcome them detail the grit and willpower of the educational community in Arizona.  

The past nine months have brought triumph, challenge, and in many cases tremendous sorrow and loss.   At my school we lost a valued staff member to COVID 19.   Heartbroken does not begin to describe how we as a staff and school community feel about this loss.   

We have students who have lost grandparents, parents who have lost jobs, families where the high school children are not only responsible for their own learning, but are now responsible for their younger siblings because their parent(s) have to work to put food on the table. 

  At one time, our district was feeding 400 families a week through our food box program. 

Many of our students have experienced trauma, many prior to the pandemic, but many since the pandemic began.    How do we as school leaders begin to address this issue and how will this change what we see in our classrooms on a daily basis?

What trauma is and how it looks in the classroom

I think it is important to first understand that trauma is a relative term.   Trauma can be defined as an experience so powerful and dangerous that it overwhelms a person’s capacity to regulate emotions (National Child Traumatic Stress Network). 

The ability to regulate emotional response can be defined as self-control, a direct result of the exertion of willpower, a cognitive skill.  If willpower is a cognitive skill set that can be taught, resulting in the development of self-control over time, what are the implications for who and what we, and our students, can become?  

In order to clarify, it may be of use to rename willpower and self-control as “Go or Hot Systems” (willpower), and “Know or Cool Systems” (self-control) (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999).  These two “systems” work within our brain constantly, where one is active, the other cannot be active.  

The “Go / Hot” system is emotionally based, it is simple, reflexive, fast, and centered in the Amygdala (part of our emotional brain).   This system develops early, is accentuated by stress and is controlled by a stimulus. 

How does this look in a classroom?   A student who is wired early-on with the “Go” system will react emotionally to a trigger; this reaction may be blown out of proportion or inflated in terms of what the stimulus was.   These students are coming to school from homes where parents may respond emotionally to stimuli, they may overreact to situations emotionally versus responding to a situation cognitively, this is a high stress environment (Mischel, How Mind and Brain Enable Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test and Beyond, 2015) (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999)

The “know” system, or cool system is quite different.  The “Know” system is cognitive, complex, reflective, slow, frontal lobe / hippocampus centered.  This system develops later in childhood and is attenuated by stress. 

Hot (“Go”) System (Willpower Wired)Cool (“Know”) System (Self-control Wired)
Amygdala-centeredFrontal Lobe/ Hippocampus-centered
Develops EarlyDevelops Late
Accentuated by StressAttenuated by Stress
Stimulus ControlSelf-Control

Fig 2 (Mischel, How Mind and Brain Enable Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test and Beyond, 2015).

In functional MRI (fMRI) tests, there has been a distinctive difference noted in the brain activation areas when inhibiting responses to hot responses, people who have high levels of self-control are able to inhibit hot responses.  In other words, people who have higher levels of self-control were able to respond to stimuli rather than to simply react to stimuli (Felitti, 2011).

Increasing tolerance in students who have experienced trauma Healthy-Brain-and-Abused-Brain
Images of a healthy brain and an abused brain from the CDC 2011.

The image above compares the brain of a 3 yr old healthy American child to that of a 3 yr. old Romanian child who lived in a Romanian orphanage.  The orphanages in Romania were known for harshly neglecting children, “thousands of whom were imprisoned to cribs and rarely given attention” (Felitti, 2011). 

The important difference to notice is that in the brain on the left, there is activity in the frontal lobe (executive function is located here) of the brain, in the brain on the right, there is not activity.  

What does this mean?  This very simply means that the child whose brain is represented on the right has grown up in an environment where the “Hot” system has been developed and the “Cool” system has been limited. 

This impacts the child in a variety of ways, the primary manifestation of this is an inability to limit or control emotional response and encourage or enact the executive or cognitive response. 

In other words, the “Hot” system is emotionally centered and controlled by the amygdala and is moderated by stress, the area in bright orange at the rear of the image on the right.   This child has been raised in an environment that encourages an emotional response, such as fight/ flight/ or freeze, and weakens the development of the “Cool”.  Problem solving will be challenging for this student in a variety of situations, as will self-control. 

In order to accentuate the development of the “Cool” system, it is essential that educators and parents reduce the stress levels of children, especially in the early years of life (Mischel, How Mind and Brain Enable Self-Control: The MarshmallowTest and Beyond, 2015). 

Educators can counter these potential negative outcomes by encouraging children to identify their “hot spots” in themselves, teaching strategies such as counting to 10, deep breathing, etc. children can learn to use very simple self-control strategies to “cool” a “hot spot”, regardless of the prior disposition; therefore, children will be better able to protect themselves against unwanted, negative outcomes (Mischel, How Mind and Brain Enable Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test and Beyond, 2015).

The above leads to the question of how do we, as educators and parents, help our students and children to build willpower resulting in enhanced self-control.    

As described above, the purpose of an athlete doing exercise in the gym is to make them weaker at the moment, resulting in becoming stronger over the long-term.  In order to help students build the capacity for enhanced self-control, educators and parents must challenge students, careful to not push beyond their capabilities, we must do this sequentially, beginning with challenges that they can easily overcome and building to more and more difficult challenges (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). 

As in the Marshmallow test, we must build the capacity for delayed gratification; educators can do this, especially those who work with pre-school and K-1 students (ages 3 – 6) by using the “If  – Then” concept.  If, at an early age students, regardless of prior disposition, can begin to grasp the “If – Then” concept they increase the capacity for self-control.  This may sound quite simplistic, because it is.   Here is where the paradigm shifts from teaching strictly content to teaching to the needs of the whole child.  The answer lies in focusing less on building student self-esteem and more on building student willpower, resulting in enhanced self-control (Mischel, The Marshmallow Test, 2014).

The Case for Mindfulness

In a Title I school, somewhere in America today, a child came forward and shared with a caring adult at school that they were being sexually abused.  In another school, a child disclosed that their parents were fighting the night before and that Dad has a drinking problem.   In a high school, a young adult confided in a counselor that the power got turned off and there is very little food in the house.   A child in a school complained to the principal that there is a group of students who are bullying her, saying she looks like a “monkey” and is stupid. 

  All of the above may sound a bit over the top if you are not an educator, but educators face situations such as this every day.   It is disturbing to say the least, but what is of greater concern is not only the child who comes forward, but the child who does not.

Students are coming to school with a variety of issues, some of which may have nothing to do with school; yet in reality, all of the issues listed above have to do with school and the ability of a child to learn.

All of the above, threat to personal safety (Sharkey, Tirado-Strayer, Papachristos, & Raver, 2012), intimidation / fear (Bryk & Schneider, 2003), threatened belongingness (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003), and identity threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995) have been demonstrated to activate vigilance, fight – flight – or freeze response, and as a result decrease cognitive functioning and hamper intellectual growth. 

In fact, researchers have determined that poverty alone can decrease IQ points by up to 13 points (Anandi, Sendhil , Eldar, & Jiaying, 2013) and hearing gunshots in a neighborhood at night while trying to sleep can cause a decrease in IQ of up to 25 points for a period of two weeks (Aronson, 2015).  Given the research, many educators may feel that we are engaged in a battle that is beyond our control, this is not necessarily the case.

Student-teacher relationships are extremely important to student success, it has been said often that kids don’t care what [the teacher] knows unless they know that the teacher cares.  There is research that is supportive of this.  In fact, supportive student-teacher relationships demonstrated higher levels of academic achievement, not only in the current year with the current teacher, but in the following academic year (Hughes & Kwok, 2007).  

In schools where levels of trust can be measured between students, teachers, and parents, it is possible to predict the level of academic achievement as they are directly proportional to one another.   In schools where there is improved trust, there is also improved academic achievement (Aronson, 2015).

Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment, taking the time to “unplug”, decompress, and get in touch with oneself. 

When working with teachers, students and other educators, I use the example of having a conversation with someone and after a few minutes of them talking, having no idea what it was that they just said.   This happens because cognitively, I am in my own head, worried about the upcoming fire drill, what I will make for dinner that night, how I am going to get the kids to swimming lessons.   For many students, the concerns are far more grave, as illustrated in the example at the beginning of this section. 

Mindfulness, a period of time in which students are quiet and reflective, has demonstrated powerful, positive results.   In one study of a school in West Virginia, researchers found the following:  an 84% decrease in suspensions, 89% decrease in fighting, 20% gain in academic achievement, a 1000% increase in graduates being accepted to selective, competitive high schools, a 100% reduction in staff turn-over, and anecdotally speaking, happier, friendlier, more likeable, and helpful students (Aronson, 2015). 

Increasing tolerance in students who have experienced trauma Dr.-Hesse-new-photo-smaller
Dr. WiSH – William S. Hesse, Ph.D., founder of Core Purpose Consulting “Making your healthy school WiSH come true”

Due to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change at any age (BrainHQ, 2016) (Mischel, How Mind and Brain Enable Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test and Beyond, 2015), we as educators and parents do have the ability to help students who may have difficulty in the areas of self-control and willpower, as well as negate some of the negative effects environment and poverty may have on students. 

A variety of research studies on neuroplasticity and mindfulness have been conducted that demonstrate that the brain can change its structure as a result of mindfulness and meditation, thus enabling students to grow to be more happy, healthy, and productive adults.  The changes in brain structure as a result of mindfulness and meditation are as follows: 

  • Increase in Cortical Thickness – The cortex of the brain is where processing occurs, an increase in thickness could be due to an increase in the number of neurons located here, thus potentially enhancing cognitive function (Lazar, et al., 2005).
  • Increased Gray Matter Density in the Brain Stem – The brain stem is the most ancient part of the brain, often termed the reptilian brain, the brain stem is the center for autonomic function, such as respiration, heartbeat, and blood pressure.   An increase in the gray matter density in this area indicates that those who practice meditation on a regular basis may have lower heart rate, blood pressure, and respirations per minute than a person who does not (Vestergaard-Poulsen, et al., 2009).
  • Larger Hippocampal and Frontal Volumes of Gray Matter – The hippocampus is part of the brain that controls emotion and the frontal lobes control executive function or processing.   An increase in the volume of gray matter in these areas may lead to an increased level of self-control and a greater ability to regulate emotions such as anger.   In addition to increased control, there is also evidence that an increase in gray matter in this area may lead to improved or greater capacity for memory, thus enhancing learning (Luders, Toga, Lepore, & Gaser, 2009).
  • Increase in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density –  The practice of mindfulness led to an increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is involved in learning and memory; those who practice mindfulness on a regular basis may very well be enhancing their capacity to learn (Holzel, et al., 2011).
  • White Matter Changes as a Result of Meditation – After only four weeks of meditation changes were present in the white matter of the brain.  This is important because the white matter, a part of the brain that works to interconnect areas of the brain, increased in the area of the cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that controls self-regulation / control and is involved in regulating emotional behavior (Tang, Lu, Fan, Yang, & Posner, 2012).

These changes in brain structure and function are important to learning and self-control; mindfulness can help students to be able to change their own brain structure, in essence rewiring “Hot” and “Cold” systems for improved behavioral and academic outcomes. 

If, as educators and parents, we truly desire to improve the lives of our students and children, and most educators and parents want to do exactly that, we have to address the needs of children, including helping them to be able to more effectively and successfully navigate the challenges of life outside of the classroom so that they can experience greater levels of success in the classroom. 

This is the reason that for educators, identifying the “Why” is so important, if we truly want to help kids lead happier, more productive, and more successful lives the philosophy of mindfulness should certainly play a role.

Increasing tolerance in students who have experienced trauma

Increasing tolerance in students who have experienced trauma Dr.-Theresa-A.-Smith
Dr. Theresa A. Smith, a Core Alliance Partner helps “Teach students to recognize their attitudes and behaviors to develop and maintain positive relationships.”

Students experience trauma because of experiencing or witnessing a frightening life event that may involve actual or threats of death or severe injury, resulting in their inability to cope.

The landmark 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) study identified potential traumatic experiences for over 17,000 adults.  The study found that approximately two-thirds of the participants had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, and the higher their ACE score, the more likely the person would experience risky behaviors and diminished education achievement.

Behavioral and emotional examples of the adverse effects of trauma include easily distracted, poor memory, inability to form close relationships, purposeful and accidental self-injury, zoning out, hyperactivity, anger or aggression, decreased empathy, and disturbances in sleep and eating (ACES Study, 2018).

The study also found that tolerance may be defined as open-mindedness or resilience. Resilience refers to a person’s capacity to make progress, even when confronted with trauma or difficulties.

According to Dr. Teresa A. Smith (Dr. TAS), we need a holistic approach to address student trauma and increase tolerance. This approach includes evaluating school and district culture, policies, and practices that might re-traumatize students. The following strategies can help educators developed a trauma-informed response that prevents student re-traumatization:

  • Assess district and school knowledge level;
  • Assess district and school staff and employees’ professional development needs;
  • Foster a culture of respect and confidentiality;
  • Provide professional development that targets resiliency in students who have experienced trauma;
  • Partner with community agencies and organizations that support traumatized students;
  • Review districts policies to ensure they support trauma tolerance and are consistently applied, i.e., discipline, attendance;
  • Developing a district framework for reporting and developing trauma-informed treatment plans;
  • Provide training that supports the classroom as a nurturing and accepting environment;
  • Empower teachers to empower students;
  • Show teachers how to provide unconditional positive regard for students; and
  • Implement an accountability model with metrics that align with student achievement.
Increasing tolerance in students who have experienced trauma AskdrTAScom

Student Perspective: Lauren C: Sandra Day O’Connor High School Student Wellness Advocacy Team Leader

Trauma can come in many forms. Some people can have family issues and others could have PTSD from other issues. No matter what it is, there are still ways that kids could get through school and not be stressed.

Even though going through trauma is really hard and sometimes you think that you can’t get through it, there will always be people to help you out and make sure that you are doing alright.

Counseling is always something that helped me get through all the stuff I’ve been going through.

Even though school can seem impossible, you can organize your assignments from easiest to hardest, so by the time you get to your harder assignments you will already be done with a ton of other assignments.

Trauma can be really hard to go through but with the right people you can make school and life a whole lot easier.


Our mission at Core Purpose Consulting is to revolutionize education by shifting the focus to the Whole Child. By helping schools to achieve healthy school and community environments, social and emotional climates, healthy communities, healthy learning, movement driven learning concepts, educational equity, healthy leadership, physical education and activity programs, nutrition programs, and complete active school programming.

The following featured resources can be found at and clicking the links below… 

Increasing tolerance in students who have experienced trauma Healthy-Learning-Cultures

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