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Helping Young Students Excel in the Classroom Post-Adversity

Helping Young Students Excel in the Classroom Post-Adversity


By Sally Writes



Helping Young Students Excel in the Classroom Post-Adversity

Adversity can manifest itself in countless ways. Stress, poverty, disability, exposure to substance abuse and neglect can make it increasingly difficult for a young student to develop all the necessary skills needed to excel both in the classroom as well as life in general. It is estimated that nearly 35 million American children have been exposed to at least one type of childhood adversity according to a survey conducted by the National Survey of Children’s Health. Regardless of the type of adversity that a child is exposed to, a severe impact on education performance can be expected. As parents and educators, it is extremely important to not only understand how adversity can affect a child but also how to help him excel academically regardless of the circumstances.

How can adversity hinder a child’s education?

An increasing amount of evidence points to the immense effect adversity can have on a child’s developing brain. Chronic and sustained physical and mental stress resulting from adversity can elevate the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in a child’s brain which can adversely affect his neural foundation of executive functioning skills. While infrequent, small increases in cortisol production can be beneficial, severe adversity can trigger a toxic response that can influence varying areas of the brain responsible for attention span, working memory, executive functioning, and impulse control.

Adversity can impact behavior too

When a child is constantly exposed to hardship and disruption, it becomes increasingly difficult to leave these experiences at the classroom door and focus fully on schoolwork. This can result in children battling with schoolwork, failing to meet their full potential unless an intervention takes place early on. Apart from the direct impact on academic performance, children who are exposed to extremely stressful situations are also increasingly prone to behavioral issues.

Helping a child learn after adversity

Despite the harrowing effect that adversity can have on a child, all hope is not lost. A child’s brain function is, in fact, extremely flexible. Once the hardship has passed or become buffered, the brain once again becomes capable of growth. If a teacher, for example, instills a sense of coping, protection, and self-worth, a struggling child may once again become calm and completely capable of developing a strong educational character.

Breaking the cycle

Adversity, whether it involves physical abuse, losing a parent, battling addiction or overcoming a serious illness, often traps a young learner in a vexing vicious circle. It is important that the physical effects of adversity, such as compromised hair and skin condition following substance dependence or lingering symptoms of an illness be addressed as a matter of urgency. If the physical ramifications of the hardship are not dealt with, it can lead to an increase in emotional and mental consequences. It is only once widespread healing takes place and the cycle is broken that a child can once again start focusing on the future.

Developing life skills are essential

If children subjected to adversity are going to excel academically, their educators need to understand the importance of not only placing emphasis on cognitive skills but also on useful life-skills that will help them cope under difficult circumstances. Activities that enable children to build social relationships and improve their responses and reactions to misfortunes need to be readily incorporated into daily classes to ensure that the children are equipped with the best possible coping mechanisms.

Which areas should skill-building focus on?

Educators can effectually create a range of activities that will provide vulnerable students with the opportunity to become increasingly more resilient, independent and confident in their own abilities. Although it is important for a student to become adept in a wide variety of theoretical and practical fields, the curriculum has to include activities that focus on building skills with regards to setting goals, solving problems, exercising self-control, being part of a team, coping under stressful situations, and anger management.  

Easing back into education after adversity

Any child, regardless of age, that is recovering from adversity needs to be treated gently in order to feel encouraged rather than flustered. There are a number of ways a child can help himself to recover, especially under the careful guidance of caring educators and family members. When guiding a vulnerable child through recovery, make an effort to highlight that it will take time to recover. Point out the importance of focusing on the future instead of the past. Help him set realistic academic and extracurricular goals and formulate a plan together to help him achieve it

Children can turn adversity into academic excellence

Despite facing severe adversity, many children find the strength within themselves to continue to push forward and excel both academically and on the sports field. One such a student is Jenna Spille who was diagnosed with a stage-4 brain tumor while attending high school in Colorado. She was given a 19% chance of survival, a very forbidding prognosis that was followed by excruciating chemotherapy and a myriad of absent days from school.  Where many others might have given up the fight for an education in the light of such adversity, Jenna continued to push forward and, with the support of her family, friends, teachers and the rest of the Cherokee Trail community, returned to school and graduated with her class in 2015.

Each case is different

Children like Jenna who are recovering from adversity will need to ease back into the educational system. It is impossible to prescribe a definitive course of action that will be beneficial to all children. Each case of adversity is as unique as the child who has had to face it, making it exceedingly important to assess each situation individually before attempting to provide effectual assistance.

As debilitating as adversity may seem, it can, for most parts, be overcome with the help of a good support system and heaps of individual resilience. Although there is no way to completely buffer any child from adversity, measures can be taken to make him as resilient as possible. This will contribute greatly to his ability to overcome any obstacles and achieve academic success.


A Note from our Executive Director…

“Total Learning Centers specializes in providing comprehensive solutions to our students to accommodate to their needs and goals. A student struggling in a specific subject may also be experiencing anxiety or deficits in attention. TLC offers subject tutoring supplemented by in-Center counseling and Executive Functioning training to meet student’s academic needs in individualized ways. It’s easy to get started with one of our individualized programs for your child. Call us today and we would be happy to answer your questions and direct you on the right path for student success! ” – Dr. Carol Utay, Executive Director 

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