Unhealthy levels of cortisol produced in the brain at a young age, due to stress or trauma, can destroy neurons. It's important as preschool teachers that we realize the unique responsibility we have to help nurture student's confidence by listening fully, making eye contact, praising their achievements, smiling, and being genuinely interested in them. The task of a preschool teacher encompasses a short window in our student's lives where their brains are forming who they we will be for the rest of their lives. It's indispensable to use this platform to set a positive example and help them grow to be their best
Stress and trauma happen to all sorts of people of all ages, backgrounds and experiences. What qualifies as a traumatic event? Abuse or exposure to violence or loss, are all capable of inducing a traumatic stress response. When the body and brain are under pressure, a chemical called cortisol is released. Cortisol tells the body to engage a “fight or flight” response; heart rate and rate of breathing increases, the digestive system slowly shuts down, and the body prepares for attack. When this happens to young children, brain cells called neurons can be destroyed.
A part of the brain called the hippocampus, responsible for processing emotions and memories, is affected most. Over time, if traumatic events occur repeatedly or if high stress levels are prolonged, the hippocampus begins to decrease in size; the cells that comprise it die. This means a physical difference in the brains of traumatized children versus those under less stress. Some theorize that once a “stress threshold” is reached, the decomposition begins. With that said, some children are more resilient than others for reasons unknown. Predisposition for post-traumatic stress disorder is a possibility. Some children may develop depression and anxiety as they age, while others will not.
The best way to prevent traumatic stress responses is through developing healthy, grounded relationships with children early in life. Preschool teachers, family members, guardians, after school providers, and other trusted adults all have roles to play in the community of a young child. By engaging with the child about things they care about, taking care to teach the child necessary skills and building a foundation for open communication, adults can help. Body language is critically important when interacting with young kids. Smiling, keeping arms uncrossed, and using a calm, even tone of voice help to foster trust, especially in times of turbulence.
By educating each other about stress and trauma in young children, more can be done to prevent it. Taking the time to show young children they are loved and cared for is of utmost importance. Trauma may not be entirely preventable, but support can be a constant.