Trauma in the American Urban Classroom

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, December 11, 2015

Trauma in the Spotlight

The recent attacks in Paris and Beirut have undoubtedly left many parents and educators struggling to for an explanation that might help students begin to comprehend the horrific events that sometimes befall innocent citizens. Likewise, teachers and families must help children make sense of the Syrian refugee crisis, the Michael Brown shooting, and the overall feeling that the world is a dangerous place.

While the events described above are the most recent incidents in our national and global consciousness, they are not unique in the impact that they may have on students’ perception of the world. Many students in high-poverty, high-crime areas struggle to cope with trauma on a daily basis. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among inner-city children is a topic that has been discussed, but has received little attention in recent conversations around urban schooling.

Trauma Among Urban Students

Living in poor urban neighborhoods creates disproportionate risk for experiencing community, family, and individual traumas such as crime, gang activity, family violence, and victimization/incarceration, chronic illness, or the death of a family member. Beyond the anomalous traumatic event, however, the chronic distress created by poverty and instability can have a similar distressing impact on students. 49% of American children in urban areas (9.7 million) live in low-income families. Families of color are disproportionally represented in impoverished urban neighborhoods. Black and Latino families with children are more than 83% of inner city youth report experiencing one or more traumatic events. And 1 out of 10 children under the age of six living in a major American city report witnessing a shooting or stabbing. The impact of poverty on students can range from transient symptoms to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to more complex trauma-related disorders. Such experiences have the potential to disrupt functioning across multiple domains.

An Obstacle to Success

Chronic trauma can result in major problems with a child’s executive functioning and self-regulation, causing a traumatized child to overreact in situations that seems ordinary to others. Trauma also can affect children’s language development, inhibit their academic achievement and make it difficult to form relationships with both peers and adults. Traumatized children may also develop hypervigilance, emotional withdrawal or dissociation. This can result in children spending the school day focused solely on their safety, making it extremely difficult to concentrate on learning academic material. It is therefore no surprise that, children with trauma do worse in school.

The impact of trauma on children in schools have been extensively documented: children with traumatic histories are more likely to be referred for special education, have higher rates of school discipline referrals and suspensions, lower test scores and grades, and are less likely to graduate from high school. In addition to their academic challenges, victims of childhood trauma face difficulties with with communication, expressing emotion, and high rates of hostility, aggression, and interpersonal violence. Moreover, research on intergenerational trauma and urban poverty has demonstrated that adults with histories of childhood abuse and exposure to family violence have problems with emotional regulation, aggression, social competence, and interpersonal relationships, leading to functional impairments in parenting that they then transmit to the next generation.

School-Level Strategies to Counteract the Effects of Trauma

While the challenge of educating students with trauma or PTSD seems daunting, several states have positive results. Massachusetts, Washington, and the District of Columbia have all implemented trauma-sensitive programs in schools that have been shown to improve academics by helping children become emotionally available to learn. Educators who are trauma sensitive understand that children need to feel safe in order to learn and that “structure and limits are essential to creating and maintaining” this sense of safety. These programs provide resources for parents, and employ trauma-specific Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

The Washington DC public schools recently released a policy agenda that addresses the issue of trauma at the district, agency and school level, and engages the broader community. The agenda includes:

  • Creating school positions to coordinate schools’ efforts to treat trauma in students
  • Adopting a model trauma-sensitive schools policy that can be tailored by individual districts
  • Creating a grant program to support trauma-sensitive schools
  • Requiring all Local Education Agencies to train and provide professional development on trauma for all staff that students come into contact with during the school day
  • Requiring all Local Education Agencies to screen potential teachers, administrators and staff when hiring new positions to strengthen the trauma-sensitive school model
  • Increasing access to information about trauma-sensitive plans in schools

In addition to these policy items, supportive adult relationships can be a source of strength in coping with a traumatic experience or dealing with the stress of poverty. Teachers and other school staff spend many hours a day with children, are often important and trusted adults in these children’s lives, and are well positioned to help mitigate the negative impact of children’s trauma on their learning.

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.