Bandura’s social learning theory states that people will learn behaviors in social settings from watching others, internalizing what they see and basing their own behavior on that interpretation (Social Learning, n.d.). In order to successfully learn what one is exposed to there must be four components present. People must be able to pay attention, retain the information, have the physical capacity to use information (motor reproduction) and have motivation and opportunity. Without these components learning, including processing and imitating, does not occur. As children watch someone model behavior, they internalize the precepts behind it and recreate the behavior in their own ways, moving beyond just imitating exactly. Stress and trauma create a neurological state in which learning is compromised. Increased cortisol inhibits brain function and the stress of having basic needs unfulfilled prevents students from paying attention.
Learning is a complex process that encompasses the whole being. Social learning theory is described as a combination between Skinner’s behaviorism, in which children are simply motivated by reward and punishment, and cognitive learning theories, in which attention, motivation and memory play a part (Social Learning, n.d.). If learning were as simple for children as it was for Pavlov’s dogs, we could easily train and predict behavior consistently. But children have a lot going on cognitively. Are they motivated to learn? Have they learned there is a benefit to what they are being taught? Are they able to actually reproduce what they see? Are they able to retain or remember methods and processes? Or is there some physical or memory impairment? Attention is a critical aspect of learning. We can be exposed to the best teaching but if we are not paying attention, nothing will be retained. What is underneath attention? One key factor is whether our basic needs have been met. For a student who is extremely tired or has to use the bathroom urgently, learning is not high on the list of necessary functions. The body first requires basic needs to be taken care of.
A friend told me this story of his time from working in an elementary school. He was called in to a classroom to deal with a child who had just ransacked the room, terrorized kids, violently upset tables and chairs and was now hiding under the teacher’s desk. My friend Mark used skills he had learned through studying applied behavior analysis. With no one else in the room, he quietly sat down near the student and calmly waited, saying nothing for minutes on end. The dysregulated angry child’s heavy breathing slowly normalized as he realized no one was going to yell at him or pull him out of his safe place under the desk. My counselor once told me in reference to my own out of control adopted children, “a dysregulated child regulates in the presence of a regulated adult.” That calmness on the part of the adult creates safety. After fifteen minutes, the child under the desk said in a small voice, “Are you mad at me?” Mark answered, “Why would I be mad at you?” The child answered, “Because of the room.” Mark looked around and said nonchalantly, “Oh, doesn’t look too bad to me. Are you hungry?” The child timidly came out and said yes. He desperately wanted to trust Mark but didn’t know if he could. Would this big adult turn on him and punish him harshly now? Mark asked if he wanted to get something to eat in the cafeteria and the boy nodded. Outside the classroom, Mark frantically but subtly motioned to the waiting principal, psychologist and parents to get out of there, as he gently took the boy by the hand. He didn’t need punitive treatment right now; he needed care and understanding. Watching the boy wolf down his lunch, Mark asked him when he’d last eaten. The reply was that he’d eaten something yesterday but no breakfast for three days. Slowly the boy talked about his home life. His mother had been screaming at him just before dropping him off at school. “Tell me about the classroom,” Mark said now. “One of the boys was making fun of my mother,” the boy said, “that made me angry.” Mark started talking about how the other kids might have felt during the rampage and how the teacher now had a mess to clean up. The student was able to see that his behavior had hurt others and willingly made amends. He had first been shown care and love and his basic needs had been met; then he was able to think logically.
Aside from the violence and the risk to others, this child had been in no place to learn. He did not have the basic needs of food and safety met and yet he was expected to sit still and listen, process information, and understand how to function well in a classroom full of other noisy, disruptive children. An adult would have had the ability to speak up and say they needed to eat first or they needed a quiet place, but this child was just forced to comply without thought for what he needed until he made it known all too aggressively that something was awry.
There are plenty of examples of children who are unable to learn well when their attention is elsewhere or they feel stressed. Jane Elliott’s children had a harder time focusing when they were being discriminated against because they were constantly worried about their lower class status, what the other kids thought, and how they might be treated (A Class Divided, 1985). My own adopted daughter has a hard time focusing in class and her therapist has theorized that her deficit in attention is likely due to the trauma she’s experienced. Much like Jane Elliott’s kids, thoughts race through her mind of stressful events she’s encountered, hypervigilance to keep herself safe and feelings of low self-esteem related to being adopted and treated roughly.
One study found that trauma results in four key themes of distress that relate to learning. Anxiety, fear, difficulty with time management, and the challenging level of material present are factors that significantly add to the stress a traumatized student feels in a learning environment (Washington, 2018). Another study showed that compared to normal children, a high percentage of traumatized children have brain abnormalities on the left side of the brain, as shown by electroencephalography (Washington, 2018). This side of the brain is primarily responsible for functions like reasoning, numbers skills, language processing and logic, all necessary aspects of typical school-based learning. Contrarily the creative functions of the right brain such as artistic ability, imagination and intuition are often unhindered in traumatized children. Executive functioning is impaired in the network of the brain encompassing the prefrontal cortex, and so memory, planning and processing are all affected. Learning and understanding are believed to originate in the hippocampus and this structure too has been shown to be underdeveloped in traumatized children (Washington, 2018). Neuronal activity in the hippocampus shows activation during the learning state which is repeated during sleep when memories are consolidated (Sapolsky, 2004). In children who live in perpetual fear and trauma, even this consolidation of patterns is compromised since sleep is often disrupted by nightmares or screaming. Trauma creates increased levels of cortisol which hinders the development of many of these brain regions, leaving children with compromised learning ability. At the same time, increased cortisol increases the functioning of the amygdala leading to an overly functioning fight or flight system, always alert and ready to react to any threat (Cacciaglia, Nees, Grimm, Ridder, Pohlack, Diener, Liebscher & Flor, 2017).
These neurological differences in traumatized children create a situation where paying attention to modeling stimuli is difficult at best, impossible at worst. Understanding stress and trauma and how they relate to attention and learning is crucial to being able to provide a safe educational environment where children can relax and focus.
A Class Divided. (1985). Frontline. Retrieved on Mar. 19, 2019 from: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/class-divided/.
Cacciaglia, R., Nees, F., Grimm, O., Ridder, S., Pohlack, S., Diener, S., Liebscher, C. & Flor, H. (2017). Trauma exposure relates to heightened stress, altered amygdala morphology and deficient extinction learning: Implications for psychopathology. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 76, 19-28.
Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Social Learning Theory (Bandura). (n.d.). Learning Theories. Retrieved on March 21, 2019 from: https://www.learning-theories.com/social-learning-theory-bandura.html.
Washington, D. (2018). Exploring the learning experience of higher education students in a midwestern university who suffered childhood trauma (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Information & Learning.