Trauma. It’s not a new word. But perhaps what is new to many is the link that has been discovered between trauma and brain development, including how a child processes information. And not surprisingly, our most marginalized students are most likely to witness and experience violence. And trauma.
According to the Los Angeles Times,
Scientists have studied the effects of trauma and chronic stress on children’s behavior and health since the 1980s. But in the last two decades, said Marleen Wong, a professor in the the USC School of Social Work, researchers have shown how trauma affects children’s brain development and can change the way they are able to process information.
Mental health of America’s students is on the minds of many, including President Obama himself. There is mounting evidence that beyond the common sense challenges that traumatized children bring to the classroom, there are physiological changes to the brain brought on by chronic stress that make learning, problem solving, and managing emotions harder for them. Trauma changes the brain.
It’s fight, flight or freeze, and we get stuck,” he said. “We can’t think in that moment. If a teacher asked a student a question, ‘What’s five times nine?’ and the student starts feeling stressed, in their mind, in that part of their brain, it’s thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve experienced this stress before. That happened when I saw this car accident. That happened when somebody was killed.
The Share and Care Program in Los Angeles Unified School District is designed precisely to serve students who have been and continue to be victims of trauma. It is a twelve week program aimed at identifying children early to help them block out the noise and work through their pain, learning to talk about their feelings instead of holding them in.
And the need is great. In a district of 640,000 students, 80 percent of whom are considered poor, the trauma numbers are staggering, especially when we remind ourselves that we are talking about children.
The good news is that educators are increasingly becoming aware of the impacts of trauma and how to support students who are dealing with it. The 2015 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, Audrey Jackson, even took time off from teaching to spend a year at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a specific goal: to study the effects of trauma on students and how to build a “trauma informed community.”
Despite my school’s efforts, we are a still a work-in-progress, as best practices for trauma-informed schools are still developing. My goal during my time at HGSE was to better understand the physiological effects of trauma and to share that information with my colleagues so they will have more information on practical things they can to do make a difference.
The bad news is that supports for students, especially high quality ones that are actually effective, cost money and are often on the chopping block when it’s time to cut school budgets. But if anything should be seen as a worthwhile investment, it is getting our students to a place where, despite the trauma and violence that has surrounded them, they are able to concentrate, learn, and succeed in school.