Trauma Informed Math- Pt. 2

Written By: Jerry Winn

Continuing from last month’s advocacy piece this article is about how math education can benefit significantly from being trauma-informed, as well as the ways in which our students can benefit from the new Common Core math standards. Mental functions like math happen through complex processes in the brain, and a basic understanding of these processes might help foster a deeper appreciation of the subject. Researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience claim to have identified at least two distinct subsystems for two different kinds of math problem. Remember that being trauma-informed doesn’t mean that we need to know all or any details about someone’s experiences - only that we be committed to being compassionate, supportive, and to protecting of their dignity. After a brief summary of  math and trauma in the brain, comparing two multiplication methods will hopefully help to illustrate these points.

Trauma can be thought of as a deeply disturbing or distressing event that leaves a lasting impression on the psyche, as well as on the brain itself. Because trauma doesn’t go away, it can be triggered and cause someone to experience a fight-or-flight response and relive aspects of the reaction to the toxic stress of the initial event. During a trauma reaction the right amygdala generates a fight-or-flight response, and the left brain, which is largely responsible for logical and analytical thinking, is shut off. This can become a serious obstacle in the way of a student’s education - asking someone in the midst of a trauma response to engage in left-brain thinking styles is like asking someone to reach for an object with their arms tied. Thinking that is less dependent on the left-brain may be more accessible to people with trauma.

Researchers found that there are two different subsystems in the brain that handle two different types of mathematical tasks. Both engage, in different ways, both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Both sides of the brain operate independently and cooperate with one another. They develop relative strengths and weaknesses. The ways in which they do specialize are nuanced and complementary to one another. Even though the two hemispheres of the brain operate independently, they share information in a very efficient manner. This means that learning through one circuit is likely to be applicable within other similar circuits. One of two subsystems in the brain adapted for math is biased toward areas in the left-brain. Unfortunately previous math education methods were very focused on this type of mathematical learning, such as exact calculation and memorization of arithmetic processes.

This left-brain oriented circuit seems to be adapted for tasks like exact arithmetic calculation and memorization of facts for quick recall. It overlaps with other left-brain areas that are involved with other logical functions like grammar. The other system, however, engages both hemispheres of the brain more equally. It makes use of areas engaged with visual-spatial reasoning. It is this second circuit that had previously been neglected in math education. Common Core math methods engage this kind of reasoning head-on. In contrast to the logical, exact calculations of the left-brain system, the visual-spatial math system underlies processes of approximation. Approximation is a crucial tool in math, maybe undervalued by previous education standards. Approximation is both practical for everyday use and of theoretical importance. It’s worth noting that methods of approximation underlie much of advanced mathematics such as calculus, which is required for many STEM and business careers. Those familiar with calculus (or interested in irrational numbers such as pi) may recall that an exact answer usually doesn’t exist - only an arbitrarily close approximation based on context and modeling.

One notable way in which Common Core attempts to reconcile the divide that has grown between these two kind of reasoning is by encouraging students to explore the connections between arithmetic and geometry - something that many of us who were educated via the old methods may have never come to fully appreciate. This connections aren’t coincidence - they are due to the fact that these ways of thinking are complementary and deeply interconnected. This pair of abilities, which are distinct but interrelated, seems to align with the distinct cognitive circuits referred to by the neuroscientists. With an understanding rooted in deep connections like these, students are free to use their right-brain to aid their left-brain or vice versa. There are two ways available instead of one. Since trauma involves a lack of access to the left-brain, these visual-spatial, right-brained methods could help students circumvent the obstacle.


A good example of this approach is the new Common Core multiplication method called the ‘area model,’ or ‘box method.’ It has these names because it involves drawing a visual aid: a rectangle where the numbers to be multiplied represent the lengths of the sides. Remembering that area equals length times width, we interpret a multiplication problem as finding the area of a hypothetical rectangle. This reinforces the understanding of the connection between arithmetic and geometry, and when students are eventually taught the standard algorithms for multiplication (‘carry the 2’ etc) they are in a position to appreciate what they are doing. The area model also lends itself to approximation; whereas a problem involving decimals or fractions might be frustratingly abstract when trying to multiply out via the standard method, seeing the numbers as lengths and areas of a rectangle offers an intuitive, visual-spatial support for the abstract symbols.

Neuroscientists suggest that there are two modes of mathematics in the hardware of our brains, roughly corresponding to “left-brain, exact calculation, verbal/logical skills” and “right-brain, approximation, visual-spatial skills”. These are distinct but not mutually exclusive. They are both available to us. A deeper understanding of mathematics comes from the ability to work with both of these techniques, and to confidently apply them in creative ways. This ability is very helpful in seeking STEM or business careers. We work with a population that suffers from trauma, and so an increased emphasis on non-left brain learning can be seen as an opportunity for organizations like ours. Considering that an important step in overcoming a trauma response is reintegrating the left and right brain, exercises that involve this kind of executive function could take on a therapeutic dimension and help with social-emotional learning and executive function.

Math First- AID

Written by: Jerry Winn

Starting in Fall of 2017, Chicago HOPES for Kids expanded our capacity beyond literacy to include a strong focus on mathematics in our after school program. In considering our implementation of this program, we were initially inspired by two sources: 1) the new direction of Common Core math, which puts new emphasis on a big-picture understanding of math and often associated with right-brain learning and 2) a discussion of trauma-Informed teaching practices.


Trauma can be thought of as a deeply disturbing or distressing event, either a single event or chronic, that leaves a lasting psychological impact. It is impressed on the right-brain, which is associated with sensory input and episodic memory recall. Trauma doesn’t disappear. It can be triggered by words, facial expressions, smells, and many other experiences. This causes aspects of the toxic stress of the initial event to superimpose onto normal situations. While these symptoms may have been helpful in surviving the traumatic event,.they become maladaptive in normal situations.

People with trauma, especially children, are often not able to understand that these perceived threats are not real, and it requires leap of faith to accept this counterintuitive notion. However, there is a neurological Catch-22. A trauma-reaction involves a high level of activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for “fight, flight, or freeze” reactions. Due to this, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for analytical abstraction, becomes inactive. The ability to think in abstraction, which would be helpful for differentiating reality from the trauma reaction, becomes unavailable during the trauma response - meaning logical thought isn’t happening.

A recent brain imaging study from Stanford University discusses the neurological reaction of people with math anxiety when faced with a math problem, and it looks a lot like a trauma reaction: high activity in the amygdala and low activity in the prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, this reaction did not occur when the researchers presented both groups with spelling problems, even if they were difficult. Research has shown a close relationship between math and executive functioning that doesn’t seem as strong with other subjects, which are often more focused on memorization of content rather than performing mental tasks.

This reflects a deep learning process, unrelated to rote memorization. If students feel or experience a threat in the process of learning, their attention to the task is disrupted because they pay attention to the (real or perceived) threat. When this happens, the prefrontal cortex, where problem-solving takes place, shuts down. One way to interpret this is that some people have experienced trauma in some way associated with math, and this trauma prevents a math-anxious person from beginning to work on a problem. The children we work with tend to have a high incidence of trauma which may have been compounded by experiences at school. This could result in an even more complex negative reaction to math. Given math’s heavy engagement with executive functioning, this has the potential to become even more disadvantageous for our students.

Significantly, the Stanford researchers found that when the math-anxious person actually began to work on the problem, their neurological activity approached that of the control group  who did not have math anxiety. The important factor in this was overcoming the initial response that prevented the individual from beginning the problem. On some level, the brain anticipates similar trauma to ensue so it prevents the process from beginning. Overcoming this anxiety requires that we actively interact with our own brain.

The fact that mental activity physically changes the organization of the brain, known as neuroplasticity, is significant. The result is that new physical and mental behaviors that can become habitual through repeated engagement. This is evident in the way trauma is permanently impressed on the brain, resulting in a learned behavioral reaction, but also in the way we can overcome this trauma by learning and establishing new responses to our trauma-reactions. In fact, this is a tenet of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - a highly flexible form of talk therapy - where people learn to change unhelpful thought patterns underlying problematic behaviors. Neuroplasticity is a double-edged sword and it is in our best interest to learn to use it with intent.

At the end of the day, our left and right brain are supposed to work together like our left and right hands. We can use right-brain thinking and understanding to get the left-brain unstuck from trauma and anxiety responses. Then, we can use left-brain analysis to reflect on what just happened and intentionally direct our capacity for re-learning. After repeating this process multiple times, the plasticity of the brain allows the new behavior to become the norm. We come to believe through experience that we can solve the problems we encounter, meeting less and less resistance as the new pathways become more established.

Math is a powerful subject, and has the potential make or break a child’s educational experience. Its engagement with executive functions in the brain can cause experiences with math to either have lifelong benefits or become traumatic and compounding. Also, considering its central importance in STEM and business fields, a student’s experience with math can be extremely empowering or disabling. A trauma-informed approach is a best practice for math education and for life in general, and the right-brained methods of Common Core math offer us a new world of opportunities for helping children with this potentially challenging subject.

Doubling Down on Double Up

Written By: Nora Laidman

This past June, The University of Chicago’s UrbanLabs released a startling report on the state of homelessness in Chicago. The number making headlines was a shock: more than 10,000 families currently experiencing homelessness- here. Where were they all? And how had our data been so wrong for so long? A similar study completed in 2017 accounted for just under 6,000 individuals. To reconcile these chasms, it takes a bit of education.

For Chicago Public Schools to identify a child as experiencing homelessness they must “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time place of residence.” Thus, CPS, and the Department of Education as a whole, recognize “doubling up with friends or family” as a form of experiencing homelessness. Previous studies only analyzed data gained by looking at individuals and families that accessed the CoC (Continuum of Care) for services such as food and shelter. The UrbanLabs report combined CoC findings with those of CPS to create a more complete sketch of the population. Also referenced was information provided by the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) on "at-risk" families, as well as families who obtained services not provided by the CoC.

Knowing the extent of students living in a doubled-up situation is critical. For the 2016-17 school year, new data revealed that 57.7% of families accessing CoC services, while experiencing literal homelessness, had reported or been identified by CPS as living doubled-up less than a year earlier. In part, this trend results from families frequently doubling up with an already low-income household. Therefore, a reexamination of the eligibility requirements for public assistance provided to households with unrelated dependent adults is a path that has been advocated by policy makers since the 1990s. Of course, this would also require reframing the general mindset surrounding doubling up.

There are so many different routes that can be taken when providing support systems to any given subset. Marin and Vaccha (1994) succinctly express the current institutional setbacks facing doubled up families and glimpse at future possibilities available when they write, “As long as public assistance programs exclude those people who share their homes with unrelated adults and reduce the allotments of families who share a home, public assistance will be a barrier to doubling up. Instead of considering the practice of living with unrelated adults while on public assistance as a kind of fraud, perhaps we should view it as a way to stretch severely limited resources as a strategy for easing the low-income housing shortage.

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Cited Sources:

Marin, M. V., & Vacha, E. F. (1994). Self-help strategies and resources among people at risk of homelessness: empirical findings and social services policy. Social Work, 39(6), 649+. Retrieved from

Nathalie P. Voorhees Center For Neighborhood and Community Improvement. (n.d.). 2017 Homeless Point in Time Count & Survey Report (Rep.). Retrieved

UChicago Urban Labs. (2018). Ending Family Homelessness Report: Understanding the scale and needs of families experiencing homelessness in Chicago (Rep.). Retrieved from

The Importance of Mentorship

Written By: Latoya Jones

“I was looking at pictures today and I cried. I was thinking about how way back then we were struggling and so poor and you two didn’t even know it. You two never gave me any trouble. I just wanted to let you two know that I love you dearly.”

This was the text message that I got from my mother while at work some months back. I am the oldest and I have a brother who is 2 years younger than me. I started to tear up while reading this and my coworkers asked what was wrong. I told them and we started to talk about our childhood experiences. It made me think about the same things the students we work with might be dealing with. I was a child who dealt with homelessness. My parents divorced by the time I was 6 years old. After the divorce, we lived in a shelter for some months. We moved in with family a bit after that and eventually bounced around living with either friends of my mother or with family. We did not have our own housing until I was in 6th grade. I did not get my own bedroom until I was in 12th grade. I knew that we were poor but my mom shielded how bad we struggled.

In my youth I had mentors who helped shape and mold my life. These mentors came in many forms: teachers at school, instructors at after school programs, Sunday school teachers, members at church, and family members. If it wasn’t for these mentors, I would not have had exposure to things outside of my world. These mentors in my life exposed me to art, theatre, Black history, different foods, the city outside of my neighborhood, and to what life would be like to go away for college. I was extremely shy in my youth. Knowing that I was so shy, I had countless adults who took it upon themselves to acknowledge me and ask me how I was doing. All of these people helped me in some way through my youth. Their presence was important, it brought some brightness into my life. I eventually attended college with encouragement from many of my mentors.

Mentorship is important for youth to experience, especially for the population Chicago HOPES for Kids serves. According to an article from Psychology Today, youth who have a mentor have fewer behavioral issues and are more confident. This is according to a 5 year study sponsored by Big Brothers, Big Sisters Canada. Also according to the article, youth with a positive mentoring relationship are twice as likely to go to college and less likely to indulge in drug use or break the law. Based on the research of this article, if you have the following six qualities, you would make a good mentor: supportive, active listener, you push youth just enough, you have an authentic interest in youth as an individual, you foster self decision-making, and you lend perspective. If you have most or all of these qualities, you should consider volunteering and being a mentor.

There many benefits for young people when they have a mentor. According to, youth who have a supportive relationship with a mentor have a better attitude about school, enhanced self-esteem, improved behavior at home and school, and better relationships with teachers and parents. Some of the benefits that mentors receive are an increase in self-esteem and a “sense of accomplishment” as well as “increased patience and supervisory skills.” You may think that you do not have the time to volunteer but according to The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), “59% of all volunteers who engage in mentoring work full-time” and are more likely to volunteer than those who do not work. College students are the most likely to volunteer. Volunteering is a good experience for college students, especially with gaining supervisory experience and they’re not being too far removed from childhood. They can also relate better to young people. Many mentors are willing to work with youth from various backgrounds, whether they are children who are immigrants, children of incarcerated parents, and children with disabilities, according to CNCS.

Due to my childhood experiences, I decided that I wanted to give back and be a mentor to young people. When I was laid off from work, I decided to volunteer and came across Chicago HOPES for Kids. I am so glad that I did. My experience as a volunteer with this organization has been a great one. I volunteered at Primo when it was in the Austin neighborhood and then volunteered with SRHAC once we started a program there. I saw myself in the children in our program because I was once that child too. It is very important for people to give back to their communities. It is also very important for young people to see people who look like them and who come from the communities that they come from. As a Black child, it was important that a lot of my mentors looked like me. I did have mentors who were not Black and they touched my life very much as well, but the mentors who were Black definitely touched my life greatly. My family came from the Austin community and that is the community in which I was born. It was important for me to volunteer in that community. It was also important to me that the children saw a volunteer who looked like them. With that said, I am asking everyone to volunteer their time no matter your race, ethnicity, or background. I am especially calling for people of color to volunteer in communities of color.

Eventually, I became an Americorps VISTA with Chicago HOPES for Kids and I am now completing my year of service as of June 30th, 2018. I have learned so much from the staff and other Americorps at HOPES as well as the children we work with. Giving service is important. It helps the communities we work with. Being a mentor is important. You can start being a mentor by volunteering.The children in our program get so excited when they see us coming to program. It gives them a little bit of brightness in their life. It will give you a little brightness in yours too.

If you would like to volunteer with Chicago HOPES for Kids, please sign up here: