Millions of U.S. children experience trauma that can affect their behavior and life prospects. Now, some schools are adopting programs to address trauma.

trauma
Students attend assembly in a converted store in Joplin, Missouri, after a tornado destroyed schools and killed 160 people in their community, 17 August 2011. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

By Akilah Wise

A movement to recognize and address trauma in schools is gaining traction across the United States.

Nearly half of U.S. children — 31 million — have experienced a potentially traumatic event according to the 2017-2018 National Survey of Children Health, which is sponsored by the federal government.

Childhood trauma, such as abuse and neglect, or having an incarcerated, mentally ill or substance-abusing parent, can cause children to develop behaviors that make it more likely for them to be disciplined in school.

Psychologists have long known about the adverse effects of childhood trauma. But in recent years, U.S. policymakers and educators have focused increasingly on how trauma affects students and on the need for trauma-informed school programs.

“There’s recognition now that trauma is highly prevalent among the students, that this is happening in all schools across the nation and that most schools do not feel equipped to respond to that specifically,” said Briana Woods-Jaeger, assistant professor of public health at Emory University in Atlanta. “But they see all the impacts. They see the behavioral issues, they see the academic challenges.”

Teachers can misinterpret the behaviors.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Trauma can have long-lasting effects on a child’s neurological development, including their cognition and ability to process emotions. A landmark 1998 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked childhood trauma to adult-onset chronic disease, mental illness, violence and death.

Traumatic events can cause children to develop behaviors, such as irritability or truancy, that teachers and administrators can misinterpret as disrespect, prompting them to discipline the students. But research shows that social support can help children overcome traumatic experiences. 

Money is going to trauma-informed programs.

Experts, policymakers and lawmakers have started pushing to fund trauma-informed school programs.

“Congress has authorized bills in the past couple of decades to put aside money to create trauma-informed services, child-service factors, including schools,” said Isaiah Pickens, an assistant director at the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress (NCCTS).

In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump signed legislation authorizing $50 million in federal funding for four years of trauma-related services for children in educational settings. The funds are part of a legislative response to the U.S. opioid epidemic but are not limited to opioid-affected communities.

SAMHSA provides grants to schools within the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which Congress created to provide resources for educators, researchers and other providers who aim to improve care for children who experience or witness traumatic events.

Last year, Minnesota introduced a bill to provide grants to schools that implement trauma-informed support, including hiring social workers or trauma coaches, and running mentoring and family home visiting programs.

Schools’ needs are different.

There is no uniform model for addressing childhood trauma, since every school has its own trauma-related difficulties. Neighborhood gun violence may be a challenge for schools in Chicago, while the fallout from the opioid crisis may concern educators in Lexington, Kentucky.

“It’s not about any one training, or any one intervention, or any one person to make schools more trauma-informed,” said George Ake, a director at NCCTS. “It’s really about what interventions make the most sense for that particular school, for the type of issue that they have.”

Trauma-informed approaches address students, staff, schools and districts, while targeting entire student bodies or students with special needs.

A trauma-informed approach can change how a school approaches discipline, Woods-Jaeger said. Many who work in this area describe the mind shift in addressing problem behavior as going from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

A 2016 study of middle-school teachers by researchers at Stanford University found that an empathetic approach involving talking with students to understand how their negative feelings led to misbehavior was associated with lower suspension rates among previously-suspended students.

Teachers need to understand their own biases.

Some schools emphasize “cultural humility” as part of their trauma-informed programs.

“Teachers need to understand something about cultures that are not their own and how to talk to people cross-culturally and how to talk to students and parents,” said Martha Merchant, a clinical psychologist and consultant with the University of California, San Francisco.

The university’s Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS) program recognizes how trauma can be linked to historical, institutionalized and societal oppression and incorporates cultural humility.

Asking a student to write an essay about what they did on their spring break can be an example of how bias or lack of cultural humility can come into play. “That assumes that kids did something fun,” Merchant said. “That they’re willing to write about, that they’re proud to share.”

That may not be the case. About one quarter of Black and Hispanic children in the United States live in food insecure homes, defined as lacking consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Many worry about getting fed during a school break.

Merchant said it is important that educators understand implicit biases and appreciate that trauma-informed approaches can help teachers, too.

“There are people who say things like, ‘Why do we have to do something special for these kids? It’s not our fault and it’s more work for me,’” Merchant said. “We definitely talk to our teachers. We’re not trying to add things on their plate. We’re trying to strengthen their plate.”

THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. What is trauma?
  2. What measures are being taken in the United States to foster trauma-informed programs in schools?
  3. Do you think teachers should be responsible for addressing child trauma?

Akilah Wise is a fellow in global journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. She is a freelance writer from Atlanta, Georgia, and holds a PhD from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, where she focused on structural inequality and reproductive health.

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