This is the first of a 2-part series where we’ll unpack the complexities of childhood trauma and its profound effects on young minds. Megin Ruston, a seasoned early childhood educator and adoptive mother, shares her wealth of knowledge and personal insights on this critical topic. 

Listen in as we explore the scientific intricacies of the developing brain, discussing how regions like the amygdala and hippocampus respond to trauma and how these responses can have lasting implications into adulthood. Our conversation offers a heartfelt blend of professional expertise and real-life experience, shedding light on the often unseen challenges children face due to traumatic experiences.

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Kate: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Teaching with CLASS podcast, the podcast that gives you quick, actionable tips to easily implement in your classroom. I'm your host, Kate Cline. In today's episode, we're going to explore the topic of trauma and understand what trauma is all about.

We are joined today by Megin Ruston, who is an early childhood educator extraordinaire with lots of experience and a personal connection that she brings to this topic. We have a lot to cover. We're splitting this episode into two parts. This first episode, we're going to really dig into understanding what trauma is all about. Let's get started.

Hi, Megin. Welcome back to the podcast.

Megin: Hi Kate. Thanks for the invitation.

Kate: It's really super to have the opportunity to talk with you today, our topic being trauma and children. I really want to know to get us going and get us into this topic, why is this an important topic to you? How do you personally connect to this topic?

Megin: I have a personal connection to this topic for two big reasons. One, way back when I was a little baby child development student and was working with families and children, when I learned about effects of trauma on the brain and brain development in general, that for me was a game changer. It explained the changes on the brain, explained so much, and where the why that I had been really looking for, and just explained. It was the answer, it was the solution.

The second connection I have is that I'm an adoptive mom, and I have a large family. Some of my children are adopted, some are biological. The ones who were adopted did spend some time in foster care at different ages. I have both a professional and very personal connection to the effects of traumatic experiences on young children.

Kate: Wow. It'll be interesting to hear more how that all weaves together as we talk today. Do you want to just introduce yourself a little bit to the listeners?

Megin: As Kate said, my name is Megin Ruston. I have been with Teachstone since 2018. I currently am the online course facilitation manager, which is a mouthful here at Teachstone, which means I support the CDA with CLASS courses, the facilitators of those courses, and most importantly the learners in those courses, the educators actually working on their CDA with CLASS completion.

Kate: That's awesome. In your life before Teachstone, how were you involved in early childhood education?

Megin: Before my Teachstone life, I have been a home visitor. I have been a parent educator and a program director/coordinator for a few different programs, all of which working with children, mostly in the five and under crowd. Those are my favorite people to hang out with, these little ones, and their parents or their families.

I've also worked with school-age children, elementary, all the way up through high school. In that adventure, I worked with kids who had been identified as at-risk, young children, older children who had been identified either missing a lot of school or having some other behavior challenges.

Kate: Interesting. You bring not only a personal connection, in your own household connection, years and years of experience with children of various ages, and from a variety of situations. All of that informs what we're going to talk about today in our exploration of trauma and understanding trauma as it relates to early childhood experiences, educators, and how we can support that.

What we want to do is we're expecting this to be a long discussion. There's a lot to cover, a lot of really important information. We're going to split it into two separate episodes.

This first one, we're going to focus mostly on just really understanding trauma, what it is, the effects on the brain, how it shows up, and all those kinds of things. In the second episode, we'll really focus on teacher strategies educators can use in the classroom.

With all of that in mind, get ourselves set up for where we're headed, are there any special technical things about trauma we should understand before we dive into the topic?

Megin: I think it's important to understand what's defined as trauma. The general definition, the National Institute of Mental Health defines childhood trauma as an experience or an event that is emotionally painful or distressing to a child that results in lasting mental or physical effects. So experiences that are dangerous, experiences that are violent or scary and that interfere with a child or adolescent's ability to cope, or it affects their day-to-day functioning.

Kate: You mentioned effects on the brain. Do you want to tell us any more about technical things we should understand about the brain and how it functions under these circumstances?

Megin: As far as the technical lingo that we might be using, the parts of the brain that seem to be the most affected by traumatic or adverse experiences are the amygdala, which is part of the brain that is responsible for our fight or flight (or freeze) response.

Kate: Okay, that thing that gets switched on when something scary or unexpected happens, and your brain's like, what do I do here? It's the amygdala, all right.

Megin: That response happens without any control from us. It happens completely instinctively.

The other part of the brain that is really affected by traumatic experiences is the hippocampus. There's a lot of memory happening in the hippocampus. Also the very frontmost parts of our brain that are the last to develop in general, even in typically developing children, the prefrontal cortex is the last part of our brain to develop that doesn't get done doing. It's not fully online until well into our twenties.

Kate: Gosh, okay. There's a lot of growth that happens. If a child is having even experiences that are traumatic in their older, upper elementary years, their brain is still developing at that point. It's not just little things that happen to you as a little kid but throughout your growing up.

Megin: Absolutely. The prefrontal cortex, yes. There's a lot of development still happening throughout even young adulthood.

Kate: Even a young child, an older child, everyone, their brain growth and development is affected by these traumatic experiences. We learned amygdala, the flight or fight/freeze. There's a fawn is another one they're adding now. I don't know what to do, so I might fight back. I might want to run away. I might not know what to do, or I might just play dead is another example, like animals dead.

Amygdala, hippocampus. Hippocampus was where memory is encoded. The prefrontal cortex is where our thinking and cognition, executive functioning.

Megin: All that executive function, decision-making, rational thinking, being able to plan ahead. Yes, all of that. The prefrontal cortex functions less effectively when it is exposed to traumatic events.

Kate: Walk me through a situation here. I don't want to be too detailed. Just say a traumatic event happens. We don't need to name it, but we can just call it. A traumatic event happens to a young child. What are the things that start happening in the brain, turned on or turned off in the brain, that do affect that development? How does this happen?

Megin: Whenever a traumatic event occurs, and again, if we come back to that definition of what trauma is, that can include most often abuse, neglect, those types of situations, but it can also be traumatic events like wartime. It can be experiences during Covid. It can be the loss of a loved one.

I also think it's actually important to note that witnessing a traumatic event can also be traumatic for the very young child who witnesses the event. Especially when you think about very young children, witnessing a traumatic event can threaten their perception of safety because their perception of safety depends on the safety of their attachment figures.

Kate: If something scary is happening to the people I depend on, and I'm watching things happen to them, or I'm watching them struggle with something, then wow. If they're having a hard time, how are they going to take care of me? Seeing that, I think also, could this happen to me too? If it happens to someone who's big and they don't know how to handle the situation, could this also happen to me?

You're saying it doesn't even have to happen to the individual. Just being a witness to it can have these same effects. That's really big to understand as an educator, because we often understand that our children are out there and outside of school experiencing their life. We often have to keep in mind that what they are seeing and hearing is affecting them too, not just what's happening directly to them.

Megin: Exactly.

Kate: How does this show up then? All this is happening, it's affecting my brain, what I'm seeing. What are the things that happen then in the brain? It's happening to me or I'm witnessing, what's going on in there?

Megin: When an individual, especially a very young child, is experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, the brain starts to release stress hormones. I think a lot of us have gotten familiar with cortisol, the stress hormone cortisol. When that is released, the brain is bathed in these stress hormones.

After those stress hormones are released, then that's what activates our stress response, the amygdala. We have that instinct to fight, run away, freeze, or like you were saying, shut down.

Kate: So traumatic events that happen over an extended period of time or repeated events. It's not like one time I have this bathing that happens to my brain, which is not a nice bath, it's a scary bath that's happening to my brain. It's happening over and over and over again. That would be chronic.

Megin: Yes. When young children are experiencing chronic stress, and you think about their brain consistently receiving this stress response, their amygdala getting activated, and this response being activated over and over, that stress hormone doesn't really have a chance to subside. Whenever everyone has this response, everyone has stressful experiences, a little bit can be helpful. It helps motivate us to respond to demands in our environment.

But when that stress hormone is high all the time, the child doesn't ever reach a non-stress response state. They are consistently in a state of fight, flight, freeze, or shut down. If you have a child in your classroom who you know has experienced traumatic events, you may see this. This child has a really hard time calming down. This child is constantly in a state of dysregulation. It can be good, bad, or otherwise. And I have my own personal experiences with that.

One of my younger sons, when he was maybe four or five, had a lot of dysregulation issues. Even things like getting out of the bath. Because of all that sensory input, getting out of the bath, it was, oh, my goodness, he was just out of control of how out of control he was. It was often a challenge to get him back into a regulated state.

Kate: Can we pause for a second? I hear new terms coming up, dysregulation and regulation. Can we take a pause here? What is dysregulation? What does that mean? What is that as opposed to regulated? Is there any other thing we should know about those states of being?

Megin: A regulated state means that our brain is nice and calm, and we are capable of higher order thinking. Our bodies are calm, so our autonomic

systems which I know is another term, but that means our breathing, our heart rate, our muscles are nice and calm. Our tummies are full. Our sensory systems are all working together. All of our systems are working together. We are in a nice, regulated copacetic state where we can talk with others.

Kate: Life is good.

Megin: Life is good.

Kate: You can talk about things. You can decide things. You can notice things.

Megin: We can learn, we feel safe. Young children can play with others and make good decisions. When we are in a dysregulated state, that means one of those systems is out of whack. Either our sensory systems are not coexisting well together, our heart rate is accelerated, or our breathing is really fast.

There's something amiss. When we are dysregulated, our bodies are tense, and our brain is receiving those stress hormones. We're not going to be in a nice, chill copacetic state. When that happens, we are not able to learn. We may not feel safe. We are not going to probably play well with others and around us. Even our caregivers, we may not be able to connect.

Kate: I'm thinking about this just from the adult perspective, make this real to somebody. I'm driving down the freeway, everything's cool, and somebody cuts me off. I'm scared for a second. I'm like, oh, my gosh, we could have just had a wreck there. My heart rate goes up. I might have that rush of adrenaline where I get like tingly and all of these things happen.

I may have certain emotions that go along with that. It takes me a minute to calm myself back down. Hopefully as an adult, I have learned those skills for how to calm myself back down. I'm guessing that's something that's learned over time, how to bring myself from a dysregulated state back to a regulated state. Talk to me about young children and that process. How do we learn this whole thing?

Megin: Regulation is a skill just like any other skill that young children are learning, like learning to walk, learning to crawl. You have to do one before you do the other. They take practice. Young children aren't coming into the world with any kind of regulation. Still, they're completely dependent on their caregivers to help them be in a regulated state.

If you think about infants and toddlers, they are completely what's called other regulated. They are not capable of calming themselves down or regulating themselves when they reach a dysregulated state.

For example, if you have an infant who is hungry, that infant is going to cry until that need is met by a caregiver. If a toddler is overstimulated, that toddler is not going to be able to regulate or calm themselves down. They haven't had enough practice. They haven't learned like the adult, what works to calm themselves down.

A toddler is not going to think to themselves, okay, I'm feeling really overstimulated right now. I should probably take five deep breaths, close my eyes, and practice some mindfulness exercises. They are completely other regulated.

Once we get into older toddlers, then we start to see what we call co-regulation, which is where still, with the support of a caregiver, they can begin to start those practices. They can begin practicing those skills. They are just beginning to be able to bring themselves back to a regulated state.

As we get into more preschool age, then we start looking at what we call self-regulation. I would argue in the older preschool ages, really, really closer to the five-year-old,

Kate: And 55, 65-year-olds, right? There are some adults and moments of when we're under high stress situations that we have a hard time recognizing when we're dysregulated ourselves, even if we have the skills. We think about a child who hasn't had it because they didn’t have practice yet of first being aware of that feeling or conscious of it. Babies are aware they're hungry, and they're aware that they're uncomfortable, bored, or whatever. But they have one way of communicating that, which is basically crying.

If we have toddlers, they have a few more ways because they're more mobile and maybe a little more verbal, a few more ways of expressing that dysregulation, but they still don't have the practice of moving toward regulations.

What is the adult's role then? You said co-regulated and then other regulated, co-regulated, self-regulated. Where does the adult play in helping that process?

Megin: All the time.

Kate: Okay, I'm never off the hook.

Megin. All the time, but it looks different in different situations. I think number one is the adult is responsible first and foremost for their own emotional regulation. Like we said, everyone experiences stress. Everyone's amygdala responds. Everyone's brain releases cortisol.

When you are working in an early childhood classroom, you know that there are those days. You have amazing days where everyone is on the same page and just the day goes really smoothly. But then you have other days where all the babies need to be changed, and everyone has to eat at the same time. Or just, oh, my gosh, my toddler room, everyone is really cranky, I don't know what's going on. You have those really stressful days.

First off, it is most important that we as adults are the source of trust. We are the ones responsible for making sure the children in our care feel safe and cared for. It is most important that we are regulating and taking care of our own emotions.

Kate Period. Okay, yes. Source of trust. I like that. Step one, I am a source of trust. I have to really be aware, and I'm feeling myself get out of regulation. I need to get myself back into regulation. Step two.

Megin: Step two is what we were talking about with other regulated, co-regulated, self-regulated. When we say self-regulated, that doesn't mean 100% self-regulated. The four- and five-year-olds are still in need of support from adults to help them navigate these really big feelings, these really big emotions that they experience.

When we're talking about children who have experienced trauma, their ability to regulate is delayed. It only makes sense. We talked about some of the changes that the brain experiences when it is exposed to trauma and traumatic events. It makes sense that if the way the brain functions has been altered, it's not going to work the same way it does for a child who hasn't had those adverse experiences.

A child who has experienced trauma or a traumatic event, their brain is not going to function the same way as a child who hasn't had those adverse experiences. The way they respond to different things is going to be different, especially if we're talking about behavior guidance or behavior management in the classroom. Maybe those traditional behavior management or classroom management strategies may not be as effective.

It can be hard to remember when you are working with an older child, as the educator you may feel like, oh my gosh, this child is not acting their age. Why are we having a meltdown over having the wrong cup when they're five? It can be really hard to remember because they look for all the world like the rest of the children in your classroom.

Kate: They should have this figured out.

Megin: I thought we were past this. But the truth is traditional methods just may not be as effective. For example, we've come to the conclusion, timeouts are not effective for most, if not all, children.

Kate: Situations in children, yes.

Megin: However, when we send a child by themselves to (let’s say) the quiet corner to calm down, go take a seat in the quiet corner or the calming area until we can talk, that is essentially still a timeout.

Kate: Yes it is.

Megin: That is essentially a timeout. The reason timeouts look like they work is because you are temporarily severing an attachment. You are just for a brief window severing an attachment that has been made. For a child who hasn't been able to develop a secure attachment to a caregiver, that's not going to be effective. It's not going to have the same effect as a child who's developed a secure attachment to you as their caregiver. It's not going to work.

Similarly, if we're talking really young children for infants, because trauma also affects our sensory systems and our sensory integration in very young children like infants, an infant who is very hard to soothe, let's say. Either you know their tummy is full, it's nice and quiet. You know they're tired and they just need to go to sleep.

But rocking may not be as effective because children who have experienced neglect have a very underdeveloped vestibular system. This motion of rocking, which is usually very soothing to babies, their vestibular system is underdeveloped in neglected children, so it doesn't have that same effect.

Kate: It could actually be very upsetting and disorienting.

Megin: It can be disorienting and it can be scary, which in turn creates a more dysregulated state.

Kate: Exactly. Oh, gosh. You think you're helping and you're actually making it worse. Oh, gosh. Okay.

Megin: Yeah. Similarly in older (let’s say) preschoolers, all little preschoolers and toddlers love to spin around until they fall over. They're stimulating their vestibular system. In a child with an underdeveloped vestibular system, you may see that child spin and spin and spin and spin and spin and spin and spin and spin, and not fall over. They will not stop. You may need to step in and be like, this is maybe unsafe. Let's stop.

Or they may be um sensory seeking, which was the case of my little guy. He was very sensory seeking because he had an underdeveloped sensory system. You may notice hypersensitivity in very young children where certain clothing creates a dysregulated state. It's not just mildly annoying. It creates a dysregulated state that is hard to come down from.

Sometimes because their emotional regulation system is delayed, it needs a different approach. Step one, for sure, is making sure that we are in charge of our own emotions as adults, but then also knowing that your strategies may need to be modified slightly to address this population of children.

Kate: Right. It sounds to me also that you really need to know your kids, each child, every child, to really understand the signals of when their dysregulation is happening or that they are always on 9 of 10. It doesn't take much to get to 10. We're already at nine all the time. I need to know certain responses won't help, will actually make it worse.

Even if I'm completely regulated, I'm entering the situation calmly, and I'm aware of what's happening, the strategy I'm using might not actually be helping the child. Being aware of a variety of strategies because we need to meet individual children's needs is what I heard you saying.

Megin: Right. It is about meeting individual needs. That's not to say that every infant that's hard to soothe has experienced trauma, or every child who's having a difficult moment has experienced trauma, and that's why they're in this dysregulated state.

However, given the incidence of children who have experienced trauma in the United States is quite high, I think the last statistic I heard is about two-thirds, if not more, two-thirds to three-quarters percent of our children. We're talking about very young children who have experienced traumatic events or adverse experiences. Given the incidence of children who have experienced trauma, it makes sense for educators to have these tools and these strategies in their tool belt when they're needed.

Kate: Thank you for listening to our first part of this two-part episode. I hope that you are taking away with you some really important knowledge and understanding about what trauma is all about, how it affects each of us—young children, older children, and adults—and how we can start to support the children in our classroom that might need our extra special support.

We hope that you'll continue listening and tune in to the second part of this episode on understanding trauma, where we will dig into more specific strategies that you can use in your classroom every day.

Remember, educators who thrive create environments where children can thrive. Please take care of yourself because what you do matters.