How Trauma Impacts the Brain of Adult Learners


In my presentation skills trainings the most frequent request I receive is for strategies to address angry, resistant participants or ways in which to engage adult learners who mentally check out or otherwise refuse to avail themselves of the opportunity to explore new ideas and try new skills. If we adopt a trauma-informed lens to view these learners, we can gain empathy for them, stop reacting to their reaction, and then become curious about ways we might support them in healing and building more adaptive and flexible responses to learning and life.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) impact up to 60% of adults.

One-third of adult learners are trauma impacted due to adverse childhood experiences (ACES) (Perry, 2006). ACES might include having an incarcerated parent; a drug or alcohol addicted parent; a childhood marked by domestic violence, poverty, or an unsafe neighborhood; being separated from a parent because of illness, death or divorce; or having a parent who was depressed or had some other mental health challenge that prevented them from meeting the basic needs of your learners as children (Smithgall, et al., 2012). 

The impact of ACES doesn't end with the traumatic exposure in childhood but instead follows people right into adulthood where ACES lead to “social, emotional & cognitive impairment, adoption of health-risk behaviors, disease, disability, social problems and early death,” (Centers for Disease Control, 1997).

A more recent report based on a survey of adults in five states using a randomly selected sample of 26,229 adults noted, “59.4% of respondents reported having at least one ACE,” (Bynum, L. et al., 2009). That is nearly 60% of your adult learning audience with some level of trauma-impact. You can add to this count the adult learners who have experienced traumatic events in adulthood, including those suffered in the classroom or training room.

Why should trauma impact matter to teachers and trainers?

As designers and facilitators of learning in higher education, in the workplace, or in change efforts with social service consumers, it can be critical to our practice to understand the broad impact of trauma on the brain and its wide reach across the diverse array of adult learners we serve. As grim as the trauma news is, the brain has enormous capacity for repair and healing (Ross, 2006). There are many good things we can do to design learning environments and activities to help calm the fires of reactivity and support healing and learning (Perry, 2006). First, we must understand the impact of trauma on the brain.

What happens in the trauma-impacted brain?

If, as an example, you grew up in an unsafe environment in which a parent became violent when using alcohol or drugs, your survival depended upon your ability to watch that parent closely for signs that trouble was coming so that you could protect yourself by running away (flight) or fighting back (fight). Small children are often powerless to do either, so the mind works to protect what the body is forced to endure. Thus the third adaptive response harnessed by a child in a frightening situation is to freeze or disassociate – to mentally vacate the body to survive the traumatic event. While these responses were critical to the child’s ability to survive in childhood, they are maladaptive responses in the ebb and flow of an essentially non-threatening adulthood. Even though they are not called for and are no longer needed, fight, flight and freeze reactions continue into adulthood because the childhood trauma and the adaptive, survival response to it, have caused the brain to physically change.

How does trauma change the brain?

To survive fear and threat, the neural systems that were physiologically activated by trauma are permanently changed through the creation of “cognitive memories, emotional memories, motor-vestibular memories and state memories,” (Perry, 2006, p.23). These memories are a child’s adaptation to a world that is unpredictable and frightening, and because they've changed his brain, they remain with him into adulthood.

How do these trauma-driven brain changes impact the adult learner?

Due to the physical changes in the brain, the trauma-impacted adult moves through life in a state of persistent anxiety and hypervigilance. He is always on the lookout for danger and is hypersensitive to changes in the voice, body posture and facial expressions of others because those are the early warning signs that he's relied on to stay safe in unsafe situations (Perry, 2006).

How does a trauma-impacted adult learner respond in a learning situation?

Because the trauma-impacted adult is reactive to minor cues or changes in the facial expressions, body postures and voice tone of others, he is exquisitely aware of and absorbed with the process of tracking those cues, even in a learning environment. He is watching his teacher/trainer and co-learners for signs of danger, often misinterpreting or over reading these cues because of his anxiety-induced state of hypervigilance. As he perceives threats to his safety, he progresses through an arousal continuum that literally changes what part of his brain is running the show. The adult learner with ACES or a history of “educational failure or humiliation” (Perry, 2006, p. 23) will move more quickly along the arousal continuum, that looks like this (Perry, 2006, p. 23):

Hyperarousal       Rest          Vigilance      Resistance      Defiance      Aggression

Cognitive Style    Abstract    Concrete      Emotional       Reactive       Reflexive

Internal State       Calm          Arousal         Alarm              Fear              Terror

If you are busy watching for danger and your central nervous system is preparing you to take action to protect yourself, you won’t have much bandwidth for learning. In this way, trauma destroys the ability to learn by killing curiosity and inhibiting exploration (Perry, 2006). You can only relax and open yourself to the exploration of new ways of thinking, believing and doing if you feel you are in no danger and won’t need to fight, take flight or freeze to protect yourself.

What does the trauma response look like in the training room or classroom?

The way this hyper alertness and reactivity may show up in an adult learner is through an aversion to the many tasks and processes that are common components of well-designed learning events. This may include an aversion to taking risks, starting a new task, responding to questions, or considering alternative viewpoints. What the teacher or trainer may see in response to introducing one or more of these tasks is a learner who skips class, displays persistent anxiety, employs resistance to the point of aggression, or presents with a look of glazed disassociation. (Perry, 2006).

What can the teacher and trainer do in response?

The first key to supporting the traumatized adult learner is to provide a safe, structured and predictable learning environment. Once safety is established, we must build bonds of trust and hold space for healing and change. It is only within safety and calm that the trauma-impacted learner can give energy to retrieving information that was previously learned and stored, engage in creative problem solving, consider alternative viewpoints and think critically and self-reflectively, thereby rewiring the brain with more flexible and less defensive responses to learning and life.

Next time I'll share structures and processes for creating a safe classroom environment.

In the next posts I’ll share some classroom environment and learning activities for creating a healing environment for the trauma-impacted adult learner.


Bynum, L., Griffin, T., Ridings, D.L., Whykoop, K.S., Anda, D.A., Edwards, V.J., Strine, T. W., Lieu, Y., McKnight-Eily, L.R., & Croft, J. B., (2009). Adverse childhood experiences reported by adults – five states. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) Centers for Disease Control

Perry, B. D. (2006). Fear and learning: Trauma-related factors in the adult education process. In S. Johnson & K. Taylor (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: The neuroscience of adult learning (Summer ed., Vol. 110, pp. 21-27). San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Ross, C. (2006). Brain self-repair in psychotherapy: Implications for education. In S. Johnson & K. Taylor (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: The neuroscience of adult learning (Summer ed., Vol. 110, pp. 29-33). San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Smithgall, C., DeCoursey, J., Yang, D-H., &  Haseltine, L. (2012). Parents past and families future: Using family assessments to inform perspectives on reasonable efforts and reunification. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.