Book Proposal – RootEd: How Trauma Impacts Learning and Society


RootEd:  How Trauma Impacts Learning and Society


Shella Zelenz



Contemporary education and the majority of school reform efforts have continuously moved toward maladaptations that are increasingly responsible for a number of problems facing young people and our world at large. The emerging field of epigenetics, neuroscience, and psychology may offer support for this contention and can contribute to new levels of awareness and action relating to problems and prospects in education, parenting, and overall societal change. With this assumption in mind, I propose a theoretical analysis that attempts to answer the following question: “How do epigenetic, neuroscience, and psychology theories support a call for education reforms based on brain development response to trauma and adaptations to teaching and learning for those with trauma ancestry or history?”


The method utilized is a meta-analysis including a rigorous, critical, and systematic review of the cases, theories, concepts, and methods reflected in the works cited.









Target Audience

Parents, Educators, School Administrators, Social Workers, Psychologists, and Therapists.


About the Author

Shella Zelenz has worked in education for 20 years. Working with students from all walks of life, cultures, races, and social diversity, her research in Educational Leadership led her to find a better way to approach learning for students with trauma histories. This included those who had ancestral trauma histories.  Many were juvenile offenders, gang members, diagnosed with varying behavioral disorders, or had family histories of violence, murder, or narcissistic parenting.  This research could not be effectively accomplished without further understanding of how epigenetic trauma inheritance may be impacting these students, how brain development from trauma may be impacting their behavioral and emotional development, as well as deep understanding of psychology and its varying classifications for behavioral and personality disorders.  The goal is to find solutions for changing the conversation and making a real difference for these students.

MAEd and Ed.D. (ABD)


Conference Presentations, Research, Publications, and Awards

Social Innovation Award – Fielding Graduate University

Conference Presentations: Alternative Education Resource Organization

Conference: June 2010, Albany, NY. Title: Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Law (H.B. 2281): What are its implications for academic freedom and youth education in a multicultural, pluralistic America? Workshop Facilitators: Don “Four Arrows” Jacobs, Brian J. Trautman, and Shella R. Zelenz (Fielding Graduate University).

Description: Addressing Arizona House Bill 2281, an act directed at the state’s ethnic studies programs. It was signed into law on May 11, 2010. The law prohibits ethnic studies classes in all K-12 public and charter schools, but specifically targets Latino, African American and Native American ethnic/cultural and linguistic heritage. We explained the law and examine its implications for academic freedom and youth education in Arizona and across the nation, including its threats to authentic critical thinking about history and the values of identity, tolerance, equality and justice in a multicultural, pluralistic American society.

Research: RootEd Abstract: Contemporary education and the majority of school reform efforts have continuously moved toward maladaptations that are increasingly responsible for a number of problems facing young people and our world at large. The emerging field of epigenetics may offer support for this contention and can contribute to new level of awareness and action as relates to the problems in educational leadership and change. With this assumption in mind, I propose a theoretical dissertation that attempts to answer the following research question: “How can epigenetic theories support a call for education reforms based on traditional Indigenous approaches to teaching and learning, especially for students with relatively recent tribal ancestry?”


Competitive Works

Current research in epigenetics primarily focus on diseases passed intergenerationally. There are a few studies that are researching the implications relating to psychologically traumatic events being epigenetically transferred to future generations. To date, these are entirely found in research studies. There are no public works that focus on this outside of articles in various journals or magazines that refer to the original studies. None are applied to educational implications.

Additionally, the research I have done into personality disorders and the core basis of narcissism found in nearly all personality disorders (particularly in the Cluster-B personality disorders), a passing on of trauma from those who suffer from such personality disorders to their offspring is common. This can be considered epigenetically influenced or prone, but it can also be a direct result of abuse, which is commonly found in households where a personality disordered parent resides. Pairing this with current research in brain development pertaining to traumatic childhood experiences, I have found a correlation with the development of such disorders being influenced by common narcissistic personality traits. Without considering all students exposed to overt abuse at home, it is also commonly accepted that similar treatments are socially accepted and promoted in the educational institutions and parenting advice books. To date, there are no other books discussing this topic. Most books relating to narcissism in relationships are directed toward romantic relationships and parenting relationships (child of a narcissistic parent – grown children are the only ones to benefit). There are a rare few articles that discuss narcissism in the workplace and how it impacts the entire working environment, including the health and well-being of employees.

There is an increasing acknowledgement that many who are diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are actually children with trauma that is unaddressed. There have been research studies performed to validate the premise that ADHD sufferers are actually lacking in healthier experiences in their homes or overall life experiences. This was the first mention of it being something external influencing the child. Since that time, more and more are beginning to understand how trauma impacts behavior in the classroom and a movement devoted to mindfulness in schools as well as trauma-informed schools has begun. This is the precipice of change, which is greatly needed. This work that I present provides a deeper insight into the core issues that every adult who is involved in the life of a child can learn to better assist in healthy brain development of each child, regardless of their trauma background, and provide a larger impact on our future society as these children will not grow up to perpetuate the trauma onto future generations.


Purpose and Need

Contemporary education and the majority of school reform efforts have continuously moved toward maladaptations that are increasingly responsible for a number of problems facing young people and our world at large. The emerging field of epigenetics, neuroscience, and psychology may offer support for this contention and can contribute to new levels of awareness and action relating to problems and prospects in education, parenting, and overall societal change. With this assumption in mind, I propose a theoretical analysis that attempts to answer the following question: “How do epigenetic, neuroscience, and psychology theories support a call for education reforms based on brain development response to trauma and adaptations to teaching and learning for those with trauma ancestry or history?”


Promotion and Marketing

I have already established a website and Facebook page promoting the book launch. I have announced it on LinkedIn and to my personal clientele email list for my business, Zelenz Consulting Group. This also promotes across to my Twitter channel. I have a YouTube and Vimeo channel which has some of my previous research work and I will provide additional video marketing efforts through both channels. Additionally, I will reach out to various book fairs, educational conferences, parenting conferences, and other similar interested platforms where people will be of piqued interest on the subject.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – Dangerous Society

Chapter 2 – The Problem

Chapter 3 – Narcissism

Chapter 4 – Trauma and Brain Development

Chapter 5 – Epigenetic Trauma Inheritance

Chapter 6 – The Purpose Behind Education and Behavioral Conditioning

Chapter 7 – Education Practices and Models

Chapter 8 – Common Parenting Practices

Chapter 9 – Communication Skills

Chapter 10 – Practical Application


Sample Chapters

Chapter 2

The Problem

General Problem

If the purpose of education is to help individuals and society live in healthy, balanced ways that lead to a joyful, peaceful existence, then contemporary education and most school reform efforts are failing (Jacobs, 2003). One of the reasons for this problem relates to cultural and educational hegemony and how the powers that control education seem to be aiming at conformity to a particular image of how things should be.  “Educational leaders have tried to transform immigrant newcomers and other “outsiders” into individuals who matched their idealized image of what an “American” should be” (Tyack & Cuban, 1995).

I propose a radically different approach to school reform, one that recognizes the phenomenon of epigenetics and the understanding of brain development for those exposed to trauma. The latter provides a more natural model for balanced diversity and happiness (Bracho, 2006) and the former offers a scientific explanation for both why people whose DNA still reflects historical trauma are “failing” so often in modern schools and how all peoples can “redirect” DNA toward higher potentials by changing how things are done. Epigenetics, and a component of it referred to as “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance,” suggests that environmental habits, from stress and diet to lifestyle choices and educational systems, can not only modify genetic expression in health and behaviors within one lifetime, but that such changes also can be passed onto offspring. My hypothesis is that Western cultural influences on education have drastically changed or are significantly challenging more natural genetic expressions of humans in ways that contribute to the growing problems both in schools and in the world at large. I argue that recognizing this possibility and returning to what can be described as holistic ways of knowing that remain, more or less, in our genes, can help reverse these problems. At the very least, it may help those whose genes themselves tend to resist most mainstream approaches to education because their epigenetic coding is closer to its original patterns.

Students with relatively more recent tribal ancestry, such as Hispanics, First Nations Peoples, Alaskan Natives, and African Americans, have more difficulties in typical western education (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2010). Certainly the literature points to a variety of reasons, such as poverty, the lack of parental involvement, etc. (Child Trends Bank, 2010), but I propose that epigenetic influence is also a significant and overlooked factor. These classrooms disregard personal authenticity, exploration of self, and almost always employ the use of a hierarchical structure that tends to remove the opportunity for students to learn self-direction through intrinsic motivation. Learning and classroom management, the organization and maintaining of an environment conducive to learning, seldom involve self-motivated responsibility on the part of students as is commonplace in traditional Indigenous education. The following is a sample listing of issues that schools are not addressing adequately:

  • Loss of interest in learning school curriculum (Kridel, 2010).
  • Violence and problems of bullying (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011),
  • Inadequate curricula (Rutowski, 2001) including lack of appropriate education relating to ecological issues (Slattery, 2006).
  • Apathy in civic and community involvement (Marbeley & Dawson, 2009).

I realize the profound nature of my hypothesis and will attempt to offer a preliminary argument in behalf of it by offering theoretical research from a variety of fields. My hope is that this book will begin a dialogue that will move toward more experimental research. I believe the aforementioned problems demand such a radical rethinking of educational reform. Current educational reform, as I will show, is narrowing the focus of education and moving away from a more natural, holistic way of being in the world that was practiced by our Indigenous ancestors and continues to be practiced many Indigenous groups, as I seek to critically examine and illustrate in this book.

By “holistic education” I refer to an approach that Ron Miller defines as

…a philosophy of education based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace. Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning (Miller, 2000).

The focus of this form of education is to bring about the fullest possible development of each individual in a manner that offers them the opportunity to personally experience life and their goals completely (Forbes, 2003). “Holistic education broadens and deepens the educational process. It represents a planned approach that encourages personal responsibility, promotes a positive attitude to learning and develops social skills. These are essentials in the modern world in which we live” (Hare, 2010, p. 7). As I will argue later, Indigenous ways of knowing embrace this holistic approach (or perhaps, visa versa).

In this chapter, I will discuss the wider implications of our current reform strategies, the history of education in the United States, reform strategies or recurring themes attempted, understanding from a systemic level, authoritarian structure and its place in the overall systems, the purpose of education and of course how this compilation of issues affect indigenous cultures in our public schools. These issues must be addressed to inform our current educational reform strategies.

Contemporary Education

A brief overview of how contemporary education, including reform efforts, seems to be the antithesis of holistic education will help describe the problem at a more superficial level than I will describe when I begin to talk about how I will address Indigenous wisdom and epigenetic phenomenon.  Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schooling offers a poignantly graphic general description of current trends. One of the contributors to this text writes:

The school as a public good has been transformed into either a training ground for a consumer society or a pipeline for channeling disposable populations into the grim confines of the criminal justice system……Jean-Marie Durand states that “youth is no longer considered the world’s future, but as a threat to its present. Vis-á-vis youth, there is no longer any political discourse except for a disciplinary one.” In this discourse, both “the figure of the child and the cultural capital of youth” are being radically configured as to undermine the rights young people have as rights-bearing citizens (Giroux, 2010, pp vii-viii).

Indeed, today’s schooling does these things with consistency and schools and teachers are being held accountable for ensuring such oppressive education is successful. If the teachers cannot produce students who perform well on the standardized exams, then they are often released from their positions or the school is penalized through government take-over or funding reduction.

Loss of interest in curricula, violence, and bullying in schools are serious concerns that affect graduation rates. “Dropout rates among the population ages 16 to 24 declined between 1972 and 2008, from 15 to eight percent. However, wide disparities by race,….persist” (Child Trends Databank, 2010). Verification of the racial disparities’ statistics can be found on the National Center for Education Statistics website. Dropout students do not have many employable skills (Child Trends Databank, 2010). Public schools focus on academic skills, without teaching these students applicable skills (Child Trends Databank, 2010). Nearly half of the dropouts are currently not in the workforce (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008). It should not be surprising that many of these dropouts live in extreme poverty and demonstrate a higher risk to be more involved in crime (Child Trends Databank, 2010).

The 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress test results released by the United States Department of education, stated that 67% of American public school eighth graders were were not proficient in math and 65% were not proficient in reading (NAEP, 2017). Urban districts bore even lower percentages. Some districts had proficiency levels ranging between 7-14%. One of the initial purposes in establishing public education in the mid-1800’s was to ensure that the “three R’s” were being learned: reading, writing, and arithmetic. At that point in time, eighth grade was the furthest most students ever attended school. It appears that whatever the initial goals were, 160 years later, they are not being met at the most basic level.

Race to the Top (Department of Education, 2011) is the current educational reform model, intended to motivate teachers, school districts, and states to raise the level of quality education , data collection and graduation results to a higher standard. No education reform strategy has researched the ability of teachers or administrators to truly empathize with their students. Teachers and administrators come from various walks of life, few of them have  experienced dire poverty in their lifetimes. Higher on the pyramid we find superintendents who live completely different lives from those of the students they are responsible for. Psychology professors at University of California, Berkeley conducted a research study suggesting a person’s social class dictates their ability to empathize. More specifically, this study clarified that those from upper class experience had less empathy than those who live in the lower social classes. The study stated that those in survival mode have learned how to rely on one another to survive, whereas those in the upper social classes are financially independent, and less likely to seek assistance to attend to their immediate needs. This lack of “need” for assistance is what hinders their ability to empathize with those in need (Kraus, et. Al, 2010). This is important to consider in our current reform strategies. Attempts to restructure schools have aligned themselves with the hiring of extremely wealthy businessmen and women as the heads of the educational reform. Not only have they not lived the same experiences as those they are in charge of educating, but their ancestors most likely experienced a better life as well (the validity of this statement will be further explained in Chapter 5). The students who are not faring well in our schools are most often poor and of historically recent tribal experience. Wealthy educators (or administrators) are most likely not prepared to relate to these students at a level which would encourage their highest learning. Experiential learning is the centerpiece for most indigenous cultures.

School Reform: History

Our current educational system was designed to create a specific type of worker who is also a consumer to function in and drive today’s capitalistic society.  Public schools were originally established to assist the industrial age in its need for obedient workers who would endure long hours of repetitive, non-thinking, non-problem solving, and non-creative work. This training approach presupposed that no one in the working class was capable of individualistic, creative solutions to the problems that society faced (Gatto, 2001).

This same desire to use education to create obedient workers and compliant citizens ignored the value of diversity and tended to oppress individuals who were not white, male and from relatively wealthy families. As John Taylor Gatto states in his new book as seen edited in Ode Magazine:

Mass schooling of a compulsory nature was conceived and advocated throughout most of the 19th century.  The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold: to make good people, to make good citizens, to make each person his or her personal best (Gatto, 2008, p. 24).

In practice, the school structure becomes more divisive and exclusive than it appears. An early forerunner of this 19th century educational purview was Dr. Alexander Inglis, Professor of Education at Harvard University, Cambridge. In his Principles of Secondary Education, he demonstrates conclusively that industrial age education was designed to segregate the under-classes (Inglis, 1918). Ranking students according to test scores “labeled” children, thereby determining their future chances of success.  Unfortunately, this practice continues today.

In compliance with the 2001 “No Child Left Behind” Act, students are required to test in certain mandatory subjects at predetermined grade levels. Through this form of evaluation, schools are theoretically more aware of their weaknesses, and therefore able to address areas in  need of improvement. This governmental regulation ties school funding to school performance. If schools under-perform, their funding is cut. Most often, the schools that under-perform are those in lower income communities. Reduction in funding to these schools further hurts the educational prospects of students who are already at a recognized disadvantage in their living environment and socioeconomic status (Mathison & Ross, 2004).

Dr. Alexander Inglis, Assistant Professor of Education for at Harvard University in 1918, wrote six basic functions of education. The perpetual continuation of Inglis’ ideas merits further consideration, especially when considered as the basis for the traditional pedagogical model or system. Inglis demonstrates his idea of the six basic functions of modern schooling as the following:

  • The adjustive/adaptive function – fixed reaction to authority
  • The integrative function – students conforming to the expectations of authority figures
  • The diagnostic and directive function – students’ records used to determine “who” the students are and what they will become
  • The differentiating function – students are “trained” to their “diagnostic and directive function” determination and no further
  • The selective function – utilizing Darwin’s theory of evolution, students with poor grades are selectively excluded from higher educational opportunities. Their peers are also very aware of these “labels” and act accordingly.
  • The propaedeutic function – the small fraction who make it through the labeling process with the highest marks are chosen to rule the most influential and controlling organizations in the country (1918).

With the concepts discussed in Inglis’ writing, the goal of  public school education becomes much clearer. Standardized examinations are still used to separate the abilities of the students. More importantly, these tests systematically fail to inculcate critical thinking skills and instead tend to create mass consumer mentalities, more likely to follow the trends set before them.

Although this may not have been consciously intended by those who implement these efforts, it has become the effect. In order to understand how we got to this place in our educational beliefs, we must understand the history behind it. Our government is an oligarchic plutocracy, this means that money decides who is in control. It is the proverbial golden rule of capitalism: whoever has the gold makes the rules. Therefore, those with money often do not attend public school. They either have private tutors or attend private schools, which teach them a different perspective of the world; their place in it and challenges them to find creative solutions to the world’s problems – in effect to be our leaders. Keeping the masses in their place with a coercive education ensures that power remains with the few. These “few” have no desire to change this system for fear of losing what they have. This prevents them from doing anything to alleviate the socio-economic damages created by the inequalities in our educational system. I would now like to reiterate my point regarding current trends in administrative choices. Billionaires and company CEOs from a higher socio-economic reality are now at the helm of the educational pyramid (Fertig, 2010; Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2011).

Our educational structure is a suppressive form of hierarchy. An administrator suppresses the teachers who suppress the students –– creating obedient employees. This need for control, or power, stems from the elite of our capitalistic society. This imbalance in societal structure has created strife among peoples for centuries. This is the normal structure for colonized societies. It is not the normal structure for many tribal cultures (Reagan, 2005).

School Reform: Current Reform Trends

Classes are divided up by specific subjects. Teachers are hired and expected to be experts in their “specific” area of study. The teacher’s ability to cross-educate among other disciplines is not usually considered. The students’ ability to see the greater picture of how the various subjects integrate into their current lives, into the history of their current world, and how everything is interconnected is rarely discussed or addressed. Everything is segregated.

It follows, then, with this kind of rigid thinking and the attendant unrealistic expectations that are the inevitable outcome of viewing children as machines, that discipline and enforced order become tantamount to success. So much so, that anything (or anyone) who questions the prevailing order or refuses to abide with its strictures is perceived as a threat to be subjected to discipline, the lynchpin of coercive education. Which brings me to discuss discipline as a form of repression.

Disciplinary structures create behavior that is reminiscent of prisons. Students who don’t “behave” in a certain predetermined fashion can be labeled and encouraged or compelled to seek counseling and medication. They are most often isolated to various corners of the classroom or removed entirely from the classroom. This “disciplinary” action is counterintuitive to the reform efforts of guaranteeing quality education for all students in our public schools. The government requires that students attend school, but they don’t guarantee that a student will actually learn anything there. Our teacher training programs continue to emphasize the same assertive discipline methodology used for decades (Van Tassell, 2004). Teachers aren’t conforming to the student. If the student doesn’t conform, he or she is excluded, leaving classroom populations that are not reflective of the diversity in the community.

Furthermore, curriculum is written from the viewpoint of only the dominant population’s perspective. All other students are expected to accept this information without question. The only requirement is that they must be able to repeat this information in the manner that was given to them for the standardized test. No critical thinking is required, allowed, or even tolerated. The dominant population has also recently “edited” their history books to reflect history in a manner that they feel is important for children to believe. Texas has almost completely removed the civil rights movement from their current history textbooks (Elfman, 2010). Arizona has banned ethnic studies (James, 2010). Other states have followed similar “curriculum adjustments.”

Students who come from less represented cultures are not given the opportunity to learn or share their ancestral histories and viewpoints from the same segments of history. Understandably, this creates resentment and rebellion in students, inadvertently creating the apparent need for more discipline to ensure continuing order in the classroom. This trend snowballs with the attempted imposition of ever greater discipline which is continually thwarted by behavioral challenges from kids whose educational needs are continually going unmet. A feedback loop is created that fails to realize that the very problems it was created to solve are in turn caused by the actual system itself. Suppression of inquisition and challenging of authority is not tolerated.

School Reform: Systemic Understanding

The theory behind segregation of subject matter was to isolate the core aspects that make it exist. By understanding the core aspects, the whole subject is then more completely understood. This segregation of subject matter fails to introduce the inter-relatedness each subject shares with another subject and how it applies to the world we live in. Students cannot understand the implications of these subjects in their world if the subjects are segregated from reality and the students are never taught how to look at each subject in relation to another. “Fragmentary thought has led to a widespread range of crisis, social, political, economic, ecological, psychological, etc., in the individual and in society as a whole” (Bohm, 1980, p.21). This understanding has begun to take root in the corporate world and in general management and leadership training. Corporations are paying thousands of dollars to hire specialists to assist their employees in becoming more cooperative, more constructive, and to be more efficient. A system that no longer fragments and separates is emerging. When one group does not understand what the other group does, inefficiency occurs and ultimately costs the company more money.

Theses shifts in how we think about strategy and planning are important to notice. They expose the fact that for many years and many dollars, we have invested in planning processes derived from Newtonian beliefs. How many companies made significant gains and consistent progress because of elaborate and costly strategic plans? Very few (Wheatley, 2006, p. 38).

The current educational “system” is clearly a Newtonian structure. By Newtonian, I mean mechanistic. This method of breaking down learning into subjects, age-segregated classrooms, divided physical classrooms, and grading systems perpetuates this antiquated notion of separateness. This reduction into parts and the proliferation of separations has characterized not just organizations, but everything in the Western world during the past three hundred years. We broke knowledge into separate disciplines and subjects, build offices and schools with divided spaces, developed analytical techniques that focus on discrete factors, and even counseled ourselves to act in fragments, to use different “parts” of ourselves in different settings (Wheatley, 2006).

The subtitle of the book, Education as Enforcement, is “The Corporatization and Militarization of Schooling,” and the many critical educators contributing to it make a strong case that education is making the same mistake that corporations have done. The only difference is that the corporations have learned from their mistakes and are now opening to new beliefs in leadership and productivity. Perhaps the model used in these new interwoven corporate leadership styles should be included in the classroom. The students would then be prepared for working in such an environment.

School Reform and Authoritarian Structures

“Authoritarian structures are mechanistic. Power and authority rest almost exclusively in a tightly coupled organization (clear goals and bureaucratic authority guide the organization). Effectiveness is moderate” (Burns, 2003, p. 5). This is the structure found in traditional public schools all over the United States. This structure is counter-intuitive to many indigenous cultures’ beliefs in leadership and learning. This structure is also heavily utilized in the criminal justice system. The structure within schools prepares the students for the workplace or prison (Advancement Project, 2010). Students who do not fare well within the confines of the bureaucratically generated authoritarian structure are often tossed aside into public school “alternative” programs. These programs often tighten the original ineffective controls even further. These alternative programs are not different from their traditional counterparts other than the population in attendance. This population consists of students whom teachers and administrators could no longer handle or teach in the traditional classrooms.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 pressures schools to perform at a certain standard. The students are rigorously tested annually to check for acquired learning. If the students do poorly on these exams, the school is punished, and the federal and state governments remove their financial support. Often, the schools that suffer these consequences are located in the poorest communities. These communities have a higher percentage of second language English learners as well as high criminal activity. Fair Test states:

Students from low-income and minority-group backgrounds are more likely to be retained in grade, placed in a lower track, or put in special or remedial education programs when it is not necessary. They are more likely to be given a watered-down or “dummied-down” curriculum, based heavily on rote drill and test practice. This only ensures they will fall further and further behind their peers. On the other hand, children from white, middle and upper income backgrounds are more likely to be placed in “gifted and talented” or college preparatory programs where they are challenged to read, explore, investigate, think and progress rapidly (Fair Test, 2007).

This can be seen as another way the current educational system has become a “feeder school” for the criminal system.

School to Prison Pipeline

Criminal activity is often a result of financial instability. Support for poor  communities is bleak; adding lack of education to the mix only ensures continued poverty and escalating crime rates. This clearly does not serve the students’ best interests. It does, however, look similar to the functioning of America in the days of slaves. Often the populace of such neighborhoods is made up of the ancestors of those enslaved, the African-American. This was intentionally created through districting and house affordability, including access to home loans.

Minorities are often inadvertently forced into the lifestyle of the street due in part by keeping the availability of a high level of education, including an environment conducive to constructive learning, limited or non-existent. This ensures low pay and a life of desperation, a desperation that often leads, again, to criminal activity. Criminal activity leads to prison terms. Prisons utilize these criminals as employees. These employees perform industrial tasks including crop work, license plate manufacturing, among many other “industrial” age type work. These workers can earn anywhere from 8 – 19 cents per hour.  This is clearly an abuse of human life – identical to the use of slave labor.

The school to prison pipeline is well documented (Advancement Project, 2010; Fair Test, 2011). Disciplinary actions and various classroom management strategies are often the root of what pushes these children out of the traditional classroom (Van Tassell, 2004), providing lower literacy rates. Once students find themselves on the street (due to suspension or expulsion), their ensuing lifestyle often lands them in the prison system (National Center for Education Statistics, 1994).

Among adults ages 25 and older, a lower percentage of dropouts are in the labor force compared with adults who earned a high school credential. Among adults in the labor force, a higher percentage of dropouts are unemployed compared with adults who earned a high school credential (U.S. Department of Labor, 2007). Further, dropouts ages 25 or older reported being in worse health than adults who are not dropouts, regardless of income (Pleis and Lethbridge-Çejku, 2006). Dropouts also make up disproportionately higher percentages of the nation’s prison and death row inmates (U.S. Department of Education, 2009).

Authoritarian Behavior Observed

Observations I have made in various schools demonstrate how well established this current authoritarian model is. The treatment of public school students are often identical to the treatment of students in juvenile corrections facilities. Observations have included the following:

  • Students required to walk silently in lines with their hands behind their backs. I observed this in Fort Worth Texas, Rancho Mirage California, and Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City Montana.
  • Elementary students with desks shoved into corners, backs turned from the rest of the class, excluded  due to their behavioral challenges. This can only exacerbate the student’s negative self-concept and inadvertently create an autonomous rationality that wants to further rebel against the prevailing “social order.” I have personally seen this used in schools in Rosebud and Miles City Montana; Poway, Rancho Mirage, San Jose, Indio, Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Desert, Newark, Temecula, Menifee, La Quinta, and Cathedral City, CA; and also in various schools within Spokane, Washington.
  • The teacher blows a whistle, all students drop and squat wherever they are, immediately. They stay in this position until they hear the teacher’s command. When the teacher blows the whistle again, the students line up. The teachers lead their students to class with their hands behind their backs. This was observed in an elementary school in Rancho Mirage, California.
  • Students suspended or expelled for repetitive behavior – not accidentally, right before the standardized testing is to take place. This ensures that this students’ scores won’t bring down the scores of the whole school, and affect the school’s funding. I saw this in California.
  • Students who pose academic or behavioral problems (often both) are encouraged to be absent the days of the standardized tests. I observed this in California.
  • One teacher in National City, CA claimed to me that the teachers at her school give the answers to the students during the standardized test in order for the school to pass.

Most troubling to me was the use of the whistle conditioning at recess. It is clear that these schools have chosen Pavlovian conditioning (Domjan, 2005) to create a theoretically constructive learning environment. There are teachers who use hand signals  and others use different sounds. The effect, is the same; the kids develop a learned response for when the teacher signals. Teachers are expected to maintain order (Edwards, 1994). The assumption is that the students are incapable of controlling themselves and thus need an adult to control them (Edwards, 1993). There is no respect for the children’s own ability to self-control or self-direct (Edwards, 1989).

School Reform: The Purpose of Education

Before introducing the Indigenous education concepts that contrast authoritarian structures, I want to revisit our Euro-centric education system’s purpose. Compulsory education began in America in the 1850’s; with the intent to create a society prepared for industrial revolution. Some feel that the industrial revolution created devastation to our natural resources while simultaneously moving our society forward with significant inventions (Hobsbawm, 1999) that have ultimately brought us to the current technological era.

Society has changed tremendously since the initiation of compulsory attendance in public schools. Schools have also changed, but not to the same degree that their world has. The industrial revolution gave way to the technological revolution. Education today focuses on examinations and verification of learning through rote memorization. “Teaching to the test also narrows the curriculum, forcing teachers and students to concentrate on memorization of isolated facts, instead of developing fundamental and higher order abilities” (Fair Test, 2007).

School Reform: Impact on Indigenous Cultures

In this subsection, I will use literature on Indigenous cultures to argue a major point in my effort to answer my question. I will make the case that mainstream education stands in stark contrast to how traditional Indigenous cultures approached teaching and learning. I will conclude by presenting a hypothesis in subsequent chapters that asserts the following: Many of the students failing contemporary education have cultural ancestries that are “closer” to their Indigenous roots than others who are more “successful” in complying with the systematic norms I have presented earlier and the inherent disconnect between these failing students, their genetic expression, and how it relates to their failure in the current educational reform strategies.

Chapter 5

The Epigenetic Factor’s Role in Education

Implications in Education

Epigenetic inheritance is the term defined by Lawrence V. Harper, professor of human development at University of California, Davis, as “the transmission to offspring of parental phenotypic responses to environmental challenges—even when the young do not experience the challenges themselves. Genetic inheritance is not altered, gene expression is” (Harper, 2005, p. 340). Epigenetics, therefore, operates like a light switch. Since all cells in the human body contain identical genetic potential, the differentiating factor is which segments of the genetic code are expressed in each tissue. Certain genes within each cell are turned on or off which can then be passed to further generations without changes in the DNA sequence. Harper also suggests that the light switch in DNA expression may be triggered by environmental stimuli which will affect the genetic expression physically or for behaviors in this lifetime and those of future generations (Harper, 2005). Evolution, therefore, plays a large role in the understanding of epigenetics. In theory, a phenotypic alteration in gene expression, which is an adaptation to environmental demands, would increase the chances of survival. This survival expression would naturally be passed down to future generations to ensure the continuation of the species.

The recent discovery of epigenetics has scientists reeling at the possible implications. Epigenetics suggests that traumatic events that have occurred to our ancestors are currently impacting our lives today (Alder, Fink, Bitzer, Hosli, & Holzgreve, 2007; Bird, 2007; Campbell, Marriott, Nahmias, & MacQueen, 2004; Cerqueira, Pego, Taipa, Bessa, Almeida, & Sousa, 2005; Cole, Hawkley, Arevalo, Sung, Rose, & Cacioppo, 2007; Dalton, Nacewicz, Alexander, & Davidson, 2007; Dalton, Nacewicz, Johnstone, Schaefer, Gernsbacher, Goldsmith, Davidson, 2005; DiPietro, 2009; Fales, Barch, Rundle, Mintun, Snyder, Cohen, Sheline, 2008; Ganzel, Kim, Glover, & Temple, 2008; Ganzel, Morris, Wethington, 2010; Gianaros, Jennings, Sheu, Greer, Kuller, & Matthews, 2007; Groome, Swiber, Bentz, Holland, & Atterbury, 1995; Harper, 2005; Jablonka & Lamb, 1995; Jablonka & Raz, 2009; Kaati, Bygren, & Edvinsson, 2002; Kessler, R., Sonnega, Bromet, Hughes, & Nelson, 1995; Kessler, Sonnega, Bromet, Hughes, & Nelson, 1995; Masterpasqua, 2009; McGowan, Sasaki, D’Alessio, Dymov, Labonte, Szyf, J., et al., 2009; Meaney, 2001; Meaney, 2004; Meaney, Szyf, & Seckl, 2007; Mennes, Van den Bergh, Lagae, & Stiers, 2009; Mill & Petronis, 2008; Moffitt, Caspi & Rutter, 2006; Oberlander, Weinberg, Papsdorf, Grunau, Misri, & Devlin, 2008; Pray, 2006; Richards, 2006; Susser, Hoek, & Brown, 1998; Szyf, McGowan, & Meaney, 2008; Van den Bergh, 2010; Weaver, Cervoni, Champagne, D’Alessio, Sharma, Seckl, Meaney, 2004; Yehuda, Bierer, Schmeidler, Aferiat, Breslau, & Dolan, 2000; ). The research is currently focusing on diseases, and implications in psychological development is now being considered. I would like to consider the implications of this in education.

Students who statistically succeed utilizing standardized examinations have historically been of Asian or Caucasian descent (National Assessment of Educational Progress data, 2007). Those who have statistically fared less successful are often African and First Nations students (among other recent historically tribal cultures). A recent study found that after careful analysis of 6,000 twins in the United Kingdom, educational achievement was “highly heritable across school years and across subjects studied [and] achievement is highly stable…..genetic factors accounted for most of this stability (70%) even after controlling for intelligence (60%)” (Rimfeld et al., 2018). I would like to offer a theory which may influence our current approach to school reform. I begin with understanding the suggestion of epigenetics playing a role in their learning styles.

Epigenetics suggest that traumatic events turn the genetic switch so that future generations are able to handle similar circumstances more effectively than their ancestors. Traumatic events can include anything from famine to war. Isolating two specific cultures, the African and First Nations peoples have similar traumatic experience here in the United States. One group was forced to leave their homeland and forced into slavery, the other was encroached upon and many of their people were annihilated. Both groups were forced to attend boarding schools in America. Both were expected to forget their roots and adapt to the new European settler’s way of life. The children were removed from their homes and tribes and were forced into boarding schools that stripped them of their culture, their language, and their way of life. I believe that this common traumatic experience may epigenetically affect their learning today.

It could be suggested that these two cultures have an epigenetically instinctual resistance to the culture who subjected their ancestors to such trauma. Another factor to consider is that their indigenous pre-colonized way of life is still epigenetically ingrained in who they are. Their pre-colonized existence was often not ecologically or environmentally destructive (Lewis, 1995). The industrialized compulsory education machine that took over their lives in the mid-1800’s is very contradictory to their deeply rooted philosophies on co-existence with nature. The goal of the original compulsory schools was to create factory workers for the industrial revolution. This industrial revolution contributed greatly to many incredible inventions. It also contributed greatly to massive destruction and pollution of our earth. I believe the African and First Nations peoples’ deeply ingrained epigenetic instinct, from thousands of years of tribal life that respected the earth, could definitely play a role in their instinctive resistance to our factory model education system. The way that they educated their young pre-colonization is also another epigenetic factor to consider.

My assertion is that the field of epigenetics, discovering that what our ancestors did and the way that they did it, has implications for students in the classroom. What our ancestors experienced, for example, in terms of famines or other life-threatening scenarios, is passed on to their descendants through their genes. This discovery lends itself to investigate the possibility of epigenetics influencing why some learners of non-Western European descent could possibly be having trouble in a Western-style classroom: it’s not the way their ancestors learned. In fact, from a non-Western point of view, it would be easy to see the current Western-style educational system as oppressive. I define oppressive education as the debilitation of the students’ ability to acquire the skills necessary for them to develop their highest self expression and become a contributing member of society.

Epigenetics: Adaptation to Western Educational Methods

The study of epigenetics is actually not new, it was first suggested a millennia ago. The earliest extant discussion was by ancient Greek philosophers. The idea gained popularity again with Alfred Russell Wallace when he and Darwin discussed the concept of evolution by natural selection in 1859. Before Darwin, Lamarck addressed the idea in earnest only to be challenged by Weismann in 1880. Prior to the 1990’s, the scientific community consistently rejected the theory as its ability to analyze the genome and gene expression did not arrive until later (Wallace, 1893; Joffe 1969; Jablonka & Raz, 2009; Rakyan & Beck, 2006). In terms of a definition, epigenetics, as defined by Bird, is “the structural adaptation of chromosomal regions so as to register, signal or perpetuate altered activity states” (Bird, 2007, p. 398). This includes environmental impacts on genetic expression. It is important to understand that the DNA structure itself is not altered, it is the expression of the gene that changes and sometimes to varying degrees (Harper, 2005; Pray, 2006). In some cases, the expression is even silenced, also known as methylation (Harper, 2005; Pray, 2006; Ganzel, Morris, & Wethington, 2010).

As stated previously, epigenetics operates like a light switch. Since all cells in the human body contain identical genetic potential, the differentiating factor is which segments of the genetic code are expressed in each tissue. Certain genes within each cell are turned on or off which can then be passed to further generations without changes in the DNA sequence. Harper also suggests, as mentioned previously, that the light switch in DNA expression may be triggered by environmental stimuli which will affect the genetic expression physically or for behaviors in this lifetime and those of future generations (Harper, 2005).

Evolution, therefore, plays a large role in the understanding of epigenetics. In theory, a phenotypic alteration in gene expression, which is an adaptation to environmental demands, would increase the chances of survival. This survival expression would naturally be passed down to future generations to ensure the continuation of the species. Jablonca and Lamb (1995) have reviewed a large body of evidence showing that, from protozoa to mammals, selection has indeed favored the intergenerational transmission of modifications in gene expression. The genome itself is not altered; the degree of expression of inherited potentials for tracking an environment is influenced by events impinging on the parent. The evidence indicates that when certain aspects of an individual’s inherited range of reaction are expressed in response to events in the environment, the resulting epigenetic states may be transmitted, not just to daughter cells in that individual, but across generations (see also Rossiter, 1996) (Harper, 2005).

Until the discovery of epigenetics, research on evolutionary genetics focused on random DNA mutations. In the light of epigenetics, however, this theory no longer has any basis for merit. The concept of epigenetics influencing human evolution provides a clearer understanding of observed changes in DNA expression. Lamarck suggested that the human body would adapt to the conditions it was living in. This trait could then be passed down inter-generationally, providing a supporting idea for the evolutionary theory of Darwin. The theory goes that if an organ or appendage is used more or less, that strengthening or weakening of the organ or appendage would be passed down to future generations. As an example from our own personal experience, modern humans have body parts (appendix, wisdom teeth, etc.) that are no longer serving a function, yet we still have them in our bodies.

There is now substantial research demonstrating that alterations in the epigenetic patterns surrounding DNA plays an essential role in the normal development of human beings, as well as in the etiology of a number of diseases. These patterns are dynamic within the life span of the individual, may be influenced by experience, and, in some instances, may be transferred to subsequent generations. While epigenetic inheritance across more than one generation has been observed in mice exposed to prenatal chemical and nutritional changes, the evidence for trans-generational effects in humans, although suggestive, has yet to be corroborated by controlled studies. Nevertheless, these results suggest that the consequences of an individual’s lifestyle may extend beyond their own mortality to include their descendants (Masterpasqua, F., 2009). In our current psychological view, behavioral development of individuals is perceived as the direct result of genetics, culture, and parental practices (nature and nurture). We now have epigenetic inheritance as an additional contributor.

While the Human Genome Project provided a complete map of the DNA sequence, it was not designed to take into account gene expression. One of these researchers, Masterpasqua, expressed “epigenetics is defined as mechanisms of gene expression that can be maintained across cell divisions, and thus the life of the organism, without changing the DNA sequence” (Masterpasqua, 2009, p. 194). This research has provided us with the understanding of how epigenetics influences the physical and psychological development of multiple generations of descendants. The implications of this, how environmental and psychosocial factors are changing the epigenome, provide us with suggestions of monumental significance. (Masterpasqua, 2009). These implications not only create new perspectives on the treatment of physical and behavioral disorders but suggest new areas of exploration as we realize that the results of our current choices as well as our responses to environmental impacts that are carried into the future by our very genes, outliving one body and carrying on in the next.

Epigenetics: Survival

The research on epigenetic inheritance is beginning to demonstrate that changes in gene expression are especially evident during repetitively traumatic environmental experiences, like cycles of famine. These occurrences do not necessarily have to happen in one singular lifetime, but if they occur repeatedly in future generations, are unpredictable, and uncontrollable by the affected persons, then they tend to be highly likely to be epigenetically passed down. Situations involving famine or forcible subjugation are prominent areas where changes in gene expression are created. Such circumstances can create intergenerational epigenetically inherited changes in phenotypic response. The traumatic circumstances do not have to be present in those future generations for this genetic expression to continue to occur. The number of generations affected can be numerous before the phenotypic gene expression reverts to its original state prior to the traumatic experience (Jablonca & Lamb, 1995; e.g., Zamenhof, vanMarthens & Grael, 1971; e.g., Lumey & Stein, 1997; Szyf et al., 2008).

Key factors that contribute to generational changes in phenotypic response include the severity of the environmental threat, how unpredictable it is and the variability of the threat. The individual needs to be able to develop a reliable response to a detectable cue which reduces the opportunity for injury and therefore increases chances for survival. This form of defense becomes an anticipated response prior to the imminent reality of the threat. This ultimately mitigates a more damaging experience than if it were inspired during or after a materialized trauma (Harvell and Tollrain, 1999).

Epigenetics: Pain Memory

Newer scientific studies are focusing on how the emotional state of a pregnant woman could impact the genomic expression of her child. Most of the research focuses on behavioral disorders thought to be generated by the mother’s negative emotional states. It is now fair to suggest that the emotional fight or flight experience of the mother can influence genetic expression in the child’s developing brain. This does not necessarily have to suggest a behavior disorder, but more importantly an instinctive response to certain circumstances (e.g., DiPietro, 2009; Groome, Swiber, Bentz, Holland, & Atterbury, 1995; Sjöström, Valentin, Thelin, & Marsal, 2002; Van den Bergh, 1990, 1992; Van den Bergh, Mulder, Visser, Poelmann-Weesjes, Bekedam et al., 1989; for reviews, see Alder, Fink, Bitzer, Hosli, & Holzgreve 2007; Mennes, Van den Bergh, Lagae, & Stiers, 2009; Talge, Neal, & Glover, 2007; Van den Bergh, Mulder, Mennes, & Glover, 2005; Van den Bergh, Van Calster, Smits, Van Huffel, & Lagae, 2008; Weinstock, 2008; Meaney, Szyf, & Seckl, 2007).

Just as convincing is the research on the parenting style of a parent who was traumatized as a child. The abuse experienced by the parent also impacts the emotional development of their child, who does not experience the trauma the parent did. Studies have shown that adult children of Holocaust survivors have greater instances of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome than their parents. In fact, these studies have demonstrated that the children of these Holocaust survivors have a higher incidence of PTSD and other mood and anxiety disorders than other demographically similar persons (Yehuda, Bierer, Schmeidler, Aferiat, Breslau, & Dolan, 2000).

As mentioned, one potential mechanism for the increased prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders is altered HPA axis physiology. Children of Holocaust survivors have significantly lower 24-h urinary cortisol secretion when compared with control participants, and off- spring of holocaust-surviving parents with PTSD had lower cortisol levels than offspring of Holocaust survivors that did not manifest PTSD (Yehuda et al., 2000). In addition, adult children of Holocaust survivors who manifested PTSD exhibit enhanced cortisol negative feedback inhibition in response to a dexamethasone suppression test (DST; Yehuda, Blair, Labinsky, & Bierer, 2007). Collectively, these data demonstrate that abuse can alter HPA axis activity and risk of psychiatric disorder at least one generation removed from the trauma exposure (Neigh, G.N., Gillespie, C.F., Nemeroff, C.B., 2009).

Michael Meaney and his colleagues have done extensive research using animal models of parenting. The parenting itself impacts both the neural development and gene expression of the young with that parental model being passed down through generations of youth by epigenetic inheritance (Meaney, 2001). Another recent study provided potential evidence of a specific type of gene expression in the brains of people who committed suicide. The difference was found systematically to be dependent upon the abuse experienced in the subjects’ childhoods (McGowan et al., 2009).

In the physical context, experiences such as famine can affect the physical health of future generations. A study was done in 1997 that focused on the famine which occurred during World War II in the Netherlands. Thanks to detailed records that were collected during this period of time, researchers were able to trace the long-term and intergenerational transmission of the effects of the trauma of famine experienced perinatally. The traits that were passed down to the grandchildren included “low birth weight, infant mortality, obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, and increased rates of schizophrenia and diagnoses of schizoid personality disorder in the exposed group” (Lumey & Stein, 1997).

Other studies were completed in 2002 and 2006 which focused on harvest and food price records to see if food availability in 1890, 1905 and 1920, in a small Swedish town, had any influence on future mortality rates. What they discovered was that the effects continued through two generations. Sex-specific reactions were also identified. What the paternal grandfathers experienced affected only the grandsons and the same gender specific result was found in the women. These researchers’ findings add a new, multigenerational dimension to the interplay between inheritance and environment in health and development; they provide proof of principle that sex-specific, male-line trans-generational effects exist in humans (Pembrey et al., 2006).

While epigenetic research is still ongoing, it is becoming more and more crucial in various universities and medical research facilities. There is sure to be much more discussion in the future regarding the impact that epigenetics plays on our daily living experiences, life expectancies, parenting practices, and how such knowledge can very easily be transferred into areas of focus such as education. Clearly this is a complex area of research that involves much more than mere genetic science. As we have seen, the experience of our parents as well as of the lives before us impacts both our physical and mental health today, while our experiences will impact the lives of generations to come. This brings me to the question I propose to address: How can epigenetic theories support a call for education reforms based on traditional Indigenous approaches to teaching and learning, especially for students with relatively recent tribal ancestry?

Current educational reform focuses on standardized examinations, rote memorization, fact regurgitation and does not promote self-discovery, connection to the earth and all living beings or intrinsic motivation. This focus perpetuates the cycle of consumerism in our world and destroys the cultural understandings and ways of living for indigenous peoples. There is an imbalance occurring that is literally consuming our planet. Adding the concept of epigenetic influence on educational outcomes adds to the concern. The epigenetic phenomenon may be causing two problems:

  • Those whose tribal ancestry is still serving in their gene expression will continue to “fail” according to maladaptive systems and suffer accordingly.
  • Those who are adapting will likely pass on genes that continue to promote the maladaptations that are causing our world to be out of balance.

For those who are experiencing stronger epigenetic influence counter to Western educational theories, success will remain fleeting. Classroom behavior may represent instinctual resistance to authoritarian structure based upon epigenetic pain memory or due to the inherent knowledge that the disconnect from the earth and their authentic self may very well lead to the destruction of the planet or themselves. True understanding of their culture, their ways of learning and teaching, and respecting their belief systems are necessary in order for true educational reform to find success. Not only is understanding necessary, action involving their historic learning and knowing methodologies are crucial. For those who are adapting to the Westernized education system, they will lose their instinctual indigenous knowledge which in turn will perpetuate the imbalance occurring on our planet today. Our world will also lose the knowledge that only they possess. Current educational reform represents a psychological holocaust for these cultures.