Stress is good for humans. It helps us grow and develop, get stronger and adapt in ways we never would be able to without it. Most of us experience healthy stress throughout our lives: dealing with parents and siblings; navigating school; dating; serious relationships—all these and more are sometimes painful, but always rich, opportunities to realize our full potentials.
Of course, stress can also harm if it is too intense or if we don’t have the capacity and/or support to deal with the level of stress with which we are faced. Children who are abused or neglected or who witness violent crimes are often overwhelmed and unable to process the trauma. The results are dramatic, especially if the trauma occurs in the first few years of life, because crucial cognitive and psychological growth can be interrupted causing serious gaps in brain development. It is a testament to the human animal’s resilience that such damage is mostly reparable—but only if the child is treated appropriately within the structure of a loving, stable home and a knowledgeable therapeutic environment.
Bruce D. Perry is a therapist and researcher who can provide the appropriate therapies and he has done so for many children. From sexual abuse, to profound neglect, to former Branch Davidians, Perry has worked with a lot of kids and has collected some of the stories in a book, The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing (2007), written with journalist and science writer, Maia Szalavitz. Along the way, Perry educates us about trauma, its effects on children, and what he and his team have learned about successful intervention.
Reading this book as a teacher thinking about the trauma that my students may have endured before they came to my classroom gave me pause. If they have undergone such stresses, then helping them to learn means helping them deal with all that. It also means acknowledging that students’ reactions to what seem like an ordinary situations may not be at all ordinary to them because they trigger traumatic memories. Providing a consistent, caring environment for them becomes all the more important.
As teachers, we have to be careful not to approach our students from a deficit perspective. What students lack is less important than what they have, which is always more than we can know. At the same time, understanding some of the environmental stresses can help us deal with them. For me, Perry’s work provides some more understanding of the brain’s development and gives me yet another reason to meet my students where they are. If, sometimes, that means teaching fractions to Calculus students, so be it; if it means helping students over emotional blocks, that’s fine, too. I’m a teacher; I teach, doing whatever is needed to help my students toward their goals. This book helps me think about my work in new ways and for that I am grateful.