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Unhappy Kid Looking Down

Most discussions of the achievement gap between children more often than not include some veiled reference to the belief held by many that “if they tried harder, they could do better”. Recently “grit” has been the euphemism used to describe the personality trait that separates those capable of rising above adversity from those who can not.

New research suggest that personality may have nothing to do with it. Instead, scientists like Ruth Lanius suggest that neurological changes brought about by traumatic stress may be closer to the truth. Specifically, changes to the brain’s default state network DSN). This is the network that runs horizontally from above the eyes through the center of the brain all the way to the back. These structures are involved in self- awareness or sense of self.

Dr. Lanius found that in healthy individuals these structures remain active during rest or down time. That’s not really surprising. Most people know the benefits of taking a break to “clear the mind” or let unfocused ideas gel.

What is surprising is that the results for individuals with histories of severe child abuse have a different profile. When their brains are idle, the self-sensing areas of the brain are almost entirely deactivated. What healthy individuals experience as a stabilizing or clarifying period, individuals with trauma histories experience as a fragmenting time with little or no unified sense of self.

Behaviorally, this makes it difficult for them to get to the next step. It’s less a matter of “grit” than a “fuzziness” that makes it hard to stay on task or to fully engage in setting goals or making plans for the future.

It’s impossible for children to know what they want when they don’t know how they feel. And that is the case for many children on the under performing side of the achievement gap. They have learned to shut down the brain areas that accompany and define terror. In so doing, they also shut down the brain areas that provide the sensations and emotions needed for self-awareness. A trade-off for which they pay dearly.