How Social Emotional Learning Can Mitigate the Effects of Trauma

Advances in many fields—including neuroscience and psychology—have moved the work in social emotional learning (SEL) forward over the last fifteen years. We know that early experiences shape a child’s developing neurological and biological systems for better or worse, and that the types of stressful experiences that are common in families living in poverty can alter children’s neurobiology in ways that undermine their ability to succeed in school and in life (Thompson, 2014). While this is very frightening, we also know that the brain has an amazing ability to be rewired. This malleability, known as neuroplasticity, means that we can intervene to repair the damage that trauma has inflicted on many children. SEL can serve as an important tool to address child trauma, as research shows that explicit instruction in meta-cognition, and guided practice with inter- and intrapersonal skills can change how people learn and interact with others.

As the brain develops, neural pathways are created, and these connections are shaped over time by experience (Fox, Levitt & Nelson, 2010). There is increasing evidence that neuroplasticity is disrupted by stress, and this disruption is seen on both the structural and molecular levels (Pittenger & Durnan, 2008). Stressful early experiences alter neural functioning and connectivity within and between the areas of the brain responsible for coordinating thoughts and actions and regulating the stress response (Holmes & Wellman, 2009). Stress causes the release of the neurotransmitter, cortisol, and constant, unresolved stress can cause what is known as the cortisol cascade effect (Carpenter et al, 2011). Too much cortisol leads to mood and behavior issues and disruptions in memory and recall (Durlak, 2015 p. 85). Felitti’s 1998 study found a strong relationship between exposure to abuse or dysfunction and multiple health risk factors later in life (Felitti et al,1998). In other words, the more trauma a child experiences, the more the development of the child’s brain is impacted.

However, students can better respond to the effects of trauma by developing social-emotional competencies. The brain’s neuroplasticity makes it possible for repeated experiences to shape the brain and even reverse the effects of chronic stress (Thompson, 2014). And fortunately, research has repeatedly shown the positive effects of SEL interventions (Greenberg, M. T., Weissberg, R. P., O’Brien, M. U., Zins, J. E., Fredericks, L., Resnik, H., & Elias, M. J, 2003). These studies show that SEL can teach children to cope with stress, manage anger, and avoid distractions. For example, teaching children to slow their breathing in stressful moments can work to control their responses and manage behavior.

Given the encouraging potential for SEL to counter the effects of trauma, it is imperative that we provide opportunities for all children to develop these skills.


Carpenter, L. L., Shattuck, T. T., Tyrka, A. R., Geracioti, T. D., & Price, L. H. (2011). Effect of childhood physical abuse on cortisol stress response. Psychopharmacology214(1), 367-375.

Durlak, J.A., Domitrovich, C., Weissberg, R., & Gullotta, T. (2015). Handbook of Social Emotional Learning: Research and Practice. New York: The Guilford Press.

Felitti, V.J., And, R.F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D.F., Spitz, A.M., Edwards. V., Koss, M.P., Marks, J.S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine,14 (4), 245-258.

Fox, S.E., Levitt, P.  & Nelson, C.A. (2010). How the timing and quality of early experiences influence the development of brain architecture. Child Development,81(1), 28-40.

Greenberg, M. T., Weissberg, R. P., O’Brien, M. U., Zins, J. E., Fredericks, L., Resnik, H., & Elias, M. J. (2003). Enhancing School-Based Prevention and Youth Development through Coordinated Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. American Psychologist58(6-7), 466-74.

Holmes, A., Wellman, C. (2009) Stress- induced Prefrontal Reorganization and Executive Dysfunction in Rodents, Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews 33, (6) 773-783.

Pittenger, C., & Duman, R. S. (2008). Stress, depression, and neuroplasticity: a convergence of mechanisms. Neuropsychopharmacology33(1), 88-109.

Thompson, R.A. (2014). Stress and Child Development. Future of Children, 24 (1), 41-59.

By | 2018-01-23T16:16:47+00:00 January 18, 2018|

About the Author:

Susan Ward-Roncalli is a Social Emotional Learning Facilitator for the Division of Instruction with the Los Angeles Unified School District. She was a National Board Certified Teacher and has over 30 years of classroom experience. She is currently working on a PhD at Claremont Graduate University.

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