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Brain Science Draws Correlation Between Child Trauma, School Bus Behavior

INDIANAPOLIS – After STN EXPO attendees learned how to use humor when things go wrong, especially during COVID-19 and unprecedented bus driver shortages, a neurosciences expert spoke about how adverse childhood experiences manifest themselves in the first place.

And that requires student transporters to understand how the human brain works.

Lori Desautels, Ph.D, is an assistant professor at Butler University in Indianapolis and the founder of the Educational Neurosciences Symposium at nearby Marian University. She also created the Applied Educational Neurosciences Certificate specifically designed to meet the needs of educators, counselors and administrators who work alongside students who have and are experiencing adversity and trauma. Her work has expanded to school bus drivers, who she said are often the best suited adult in a child’s school day to model empathy and safety for children because of their early daily interactions .

“Even if a child goes home to toxic levels of stress, one emotionally available adult can overcome that for the child, that can be the school bus driver,” she told attendees during a general session Sunday afternoon.

She explained that the brain is built from the very back, or the brain stem, to the front, or prefrontal cortex. The brain stem is the oldest part of the brain and governs basic bodily functions, including digestion, respiration and sleep. It also regulates feeling. She referred to the brain stem as “the unconscious and ongoing.”

The prefrontal cortex is located behind the eyebrows and doesn’t fully develop until a person is in their mid-30s. This is where sustained attention, emotional regulation, problem solving, and logic occur.

In the middle is the amygdala, which Desautels referred to as the brain’s smoke detector. It governs fight or flight. But for people at a young age, when the brain is developing, who don’t grow up in safe and empathetic environments, the amygdala takes over in times of stress or “triggering,” and the prefrontal cortex doesn’t function properly.

The result is past trauma being exhibited in physical ways, she explained. That is why people in fight or flight mode can have diluted pupils or don’t hear what others are trying to say to them — the stapedius muscle in the inner ear literally swells to the point that any ability to pay attention is lost.

She relayed the experience of her 80-year-old mother, who at age 9 experienced the death of her older sister in a train-car collision. To this day, Desautels said her mother tenses up and becomes anxious any time she drives over a railroad crossing.

“You need thousands of experiences being co-regulated, which is validating someone or being validated,” she noted. “We don’t live well, teach well or parent well if we don’t feel safe or connected to others.”

She said, most students don’t come to school looking forward to learning. Instead, they seek some place where they feel safe and loved. She suggested that student transportation departments play a vital role in influencing positive reactions to students as well as their staff members by embracing and teaching a true culture of safety that is familial.

Desautels also provided several breathing and movement exercises to deploy that can create a physically calm environment with their students and staff as well as self-identify feelings in the moment.

Learn more about Desautels’ research and training at www.revelationsineducation.com.


Related: (STN Podcast E17) Transporting With Care: Guidance on School Re-opening & Student Mental Health
Related: Trauma Damages Brains, Explains Behavior Outbursts
Related: Re-engaging Students with Disabilities on the Bus During COVID-19

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