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Trauma and learning

| Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Education is the means by which we sculpt our children into informed and participatory members of society. Our academic institutions play a pivotal role in the safeguarding and prosperity of the republic; civic engagement demands a populace capable of critically examining those unique issues that hinder both the local and the national community, respectively. In a democracy, citizenship and reason are concomitants, and to lack the ability to fully utilize the rational faculties innate in all people and, worst still, be unable to summon a voice in the social and political arena, is to be no citizen at all.

Education, therefore, more than a financial asset, is an essential correlative to full participation in American society. Yet, of the myriad of academic barriers that students face, few are as prominent and toxic as the role of trauma. Childhood trauma is undoubtedly a destructive force in the lives of many young people. However, what is less known is the vast number of children who actually suffer through traumatic experiences and the ensuing debilitating effects. According to the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study, over 50 percent of the 17000 adults surveyed reported having experienced at least one form of childhood adversity. These included physical, emotional or sexual abuse; witnessing their mother treated violently; having a parent with substance abuse or mental health issues.

The overwhelming majority of these children are found in low-socioeconomic communities of color. Understanding, therefore, the role of trauma in education and how it can be overcome is paramount to the future success of many American communities.

Trauma has a direct and powerful effect on a child’s capacity to learn. According to the ACE study, adverse experiences can stifle nervous system and brain development, hindering the student’s ability to focus on tasks and apprehend cause and effect relationships.

Professor Jeff Duncan-Adrade, a pioneering figure in the field of trauma sensitive learning environments, focuses primarily on the elements of effective teaching in schools serving poor and working class children. A common theme throughout his expansive volume of work is an emphasis on how students who undergo a severe amount of trauma have a tendency to act out in the class room as a coping mechanism. What’s startling, however, is that Professor Andrade posits that these children exhibit symptoms of PTSD; being exposed to gun violence, drug abuse and often lacking basic necessities, they essentially live in a state of constant anxiety.

His research has found how the majority of public schools simply don’t have an operating framework in which to deal with traumatized students. Consequently, students who have experienced trauma are often marginalized, their anti-social behavior either punished or simply ignored.

In tackling the salient, albeit subtle, role trauma has in education, one possible solution is the establishment of trauma sensitive schools. According to Harvard researchers in the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, trauma sensitivity means that all members of the faculty and staff are aware of the harrowing living conditions many impoverished students face and hence strive to generate an environment conducive to the forming of intimate relationships with students. Students learn best when they feel the people around them genuinely care and are invested in their success. In the case of many children, this means attending to their basic needs. The most common form of child maltreatment is negligence, and it is difficult to focus on memorizing the multiplication table when you’re hungry and restless.

Trauma-sensitive schools seek to address the needs of the student holistically. This includes ensuring they’re fundamental needs are being met, whether that’s the need for food or even just someone to talk to. States have only recently begun to offer grant funding for the development of trauma-safe academic institutions. The issue of trauma however, should be considered among the most pressing with regards to education reform. Trauma is simply far too common to ignore.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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