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School Trauma & the Complex Learner: 3 Takeaways from Wolf School’s Annual Conference

Now in its third year, The Wolf School Complex Learners Conference continues to bring together speakers with a variety of expertise and perspectives in order to grow a greater understanding of how children who learn and interact differently, can unlock their potential. This year, with a focus on the impact of trauma, we explored neurobiological connections, sensory integration and learning, and behavioral, social and emotional vulnerabilities.

It was an informative and energizing day! Serving in part as staff professional development as well as a forum for the community at large, over 100 teachers, parents, occupational therapists (OTs), speech and language pathologists (SLPs) and other providers attended. There was so much to learn and share. I can’t recap the entire conference, but for those of you who couldn’t attend, here is some of the information that stood out to me from each speaker. If you were surprised or excited about anything you heard, let us know below! And when next year’s conference comes around, be sure to attend! It’s incredibly helpful for anyone living or working with children who experience complex learning differences.

  • Our first speaker, Dr. Teresa May-Benson, Sc. D., OTR/L, FAOTA, is nationally known in the OT world as a therapist, lecturer, and Executive Director of the Spiral Foundation. She described the neurobiological consequences of trauma, and the ways it alters the structure and function of brain regions as well as brain connectivity. These changes effect sensory processing regulation and present in a wide range of symptoms, depending on the age and severity of the trauma. Consequently, traumatic memories are stored in the body and may not be accessible to cognitive strategies. Instead, it was suggested that body-based treatments and interactive physical play be used as interventions. Most importantly, appositive social relationships with positive attachment help mitigate negative effects.
  • Dr. Jennifer Jencks, Ph.D., a therapist specializing in children and adolescents with anxiety, discussed developmental trauma and its effect at various stages of growth. She pointed out that children can often inherit trauma from the generation before since it has an impact on the brain’s development as well as the family’s ability to function. Normalizing and teaching about the energy in our bodies and how it is connected to feelings is important but takes time. Creating unconditional positive regard is also critical, even if the child is not giving a lot back to you. She recommends using multiple modalities such as art, visual modeling, movement and as much connection between home, school, and therapy as possible.
  • Finally, Dr. Karen Holler, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist, talked about school-based trauma and how small “t” trauma, such as learning disabilities and difficulties with social skills, can overwhelm children and exceed their ability to cope. If this trauma is chronic, the child’s neurological system never gets a chance to relax. While there are genetic boundaries to our abilities, environmental experiences can bring us to the high and low end of the continuum. If there aren’t enough supports for children who experience trauma, they can present at the low end of their abilities and present a range of symptoms that lead to difficult school performance. When trying to understand a child’s behaviors and vulnerabilities, the question needs to change from what is wrong with you, to what is happening to you.

This gives you just a snippet of what our day was like and how much we learned! Thank you to our incredible speakers and participants. We are in this together and have much to learn from each other.

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

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