Stage 1 of 4: Childhood Trauma and Its Negative Impact on Education

I. Introduction

As I mentioned in my introductory blog post, in my former years as a teacher, I found myself frustrated at times with not knowing how to teach students that came to me with heavy educational and emotional needs. For example, take the following experience that I had as a teacher working with pre-teens:

I was preparing my class of 32 sixth graders for the next 50 minutes of class when Javier* walked in late with his hood on. He went to his desk and sat down quietly. I walked over to talk to him in hopes of catching him up on what he just missed. Within 5 seconds, I realized Javier had no interest in what I was saying. So, I told him I was going to give him a few minutes to wake up and that I’d be back. No more than 10 seconds after walking away, Javier was engaged in a conversation with the 3 other kids in his group. Their conversation had nothing to do with the assignment the rest of the class was working on, so I went over and quietly talked to him while his group members continued working. Javier grew irritated with me because I wasn’t going to allow him to just sit there and do nothing and distract other students from the task. I left Javier alone again thinking maybe he would calm down and get himself on task without me hovering over him. Next thing I know, Javier was cussing out another student. As per school policy, I had to write a discipline referral** for him and send him to the office with work to do (which I knew wasn’t going to get done). 

This story was not uncommon. As a teacher, I saw versions of this story ALL the time, and not just with Javier. When you read that story, you might have assumed that Javier was to blame. Maybe you thought that he was one of those troublemakers or an all around bad student who was purposely disruptive and disrespectful to his teacher and peers. 

Before you make your final judgments about Javier, let me tell you a little bit about his background. I learned from Javier’s mother that he witnessed his father physically abuse his mother for 8 years. His father eventually faced criminal charges for the years of abuse against his mother. His father then decided to flee to Mexico before he could be convicted of any crimes. Over the next 4 years after his dad left, Javier had very little contact with his father. He also had little access to counseling and when he did have access, it was inconsistent. Javier loved playing soccer ever since he could walk and was actually an amazing athlete but his grades consistently suffered and he was therefore ineligible to try out for the school team. 

I told you this story to give you an idea of why I am interested in the impact of trauma on kids’ lives and especially, the way trauma impacts their education. I felt like I lacked the resources to help students like Javier. I knew he was dealing with trauma but I had never been trained in this area, so I couldn’t help him in a meaningful way. Through my preliminary research in this policy class, I have realized that my frustration as a teacher really came from having these amazing kids in my classes that most likely suffered from trauma and as a result, found it very hard to learn in a traditional public school setting. I wanted nothing more than for all of my students to be successful in school. But at the time, and to this day, I didn’t understand just how devastating trauma can be on a student’s learning process. And even if I had the knowledge, I had no method or opportunity to address this as a teacher.

Based on those experiences,I will be going through somewhat of a journey with you as I educate myself on what trauma is, how it impacts children and youth in foster care in particular and the challenges they face in our public school system. I will wrap up my research with possible suggestions for improving public schools to better accommodate youth impacted by trauma. I plan to explore the following in my research this semester:

This post will serve as Stage 1. In the next couple of months, I will be posting about my research and findings regarding Stages 2, 3, and 4.

II. What is Trauma?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a traumatic event as “one that threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others and also causes horror, terror, or helplessness at the same time it occurs.” They also provide examples of what can be considered a traumatic event (please note that these are just a few examples. There are other situations and circumstances that can be considered traumatic to an individual that do not show appear on this list):

Alameda County’s Behavioral Health Department has explained that while traumatic events can have multiple definitions, there is an agreement among experts that when a person is unable to cope with a traumatic event alone or with the help of outside resources, the result is one of trauma. We know that trauma occurs when someone is so overwhelmed by a traumatic event that they are not able to cope with it. The events are unique to the individual, and these events can happen just once in someone’s life or they can experience trauma multiple times. 

II. Trauma’s Impact on the Physical Brain

Why is trauma so impactful on children and their educational outcomes? Research shows that there are different ways in which trauma can impact a youth’s interaction with school on a daily basis. This is because trauma physically changes the way the brain functions. These physical changes make children who are suffering from trauma act differently than other children when exposed to the same situations throughout the school day. It can make it harder for children with trauma to learn in a typical classroom environment where generally, kids are expected to sit down, be quiet, learn, talk only when they are supposed to, and most importantly, listen to the teacher. These are the parts of a youth’s brain that can be physically changed when children are exposed to trauma and the behavioral result due to the changes:

This means that after trauma, the physical changes to a child’s brain can create problematic reactions to daily events and situations. 

III. Common Behaviors of Children with Trauma

As a result of the physical changes in the brain, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, children respond to trauma in common ways (please remember that every child’s experience is different and consequently, may have a different reaction to the same event as someone else): 

Trauma can result in long-term, even life-long mental conditions, including: griefdepressionanxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While I will not be looking into the process of diagnosing children or the different conditions that they may develop from exposure to trauma within my own writing, there is research in this area. Research clearly shows that most responses to trauma can make it very difficult for children to navigate everyday life and especially their quality of life and success at school.

IV. Trauma’s Impact on Learning

One major investigative study that was conducted in 1995 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente focused on the impact of trauma on youth. This study is one of the largest that has ever looked at trauma in kids and the way that it affects their health, education and well being later in life. The study looked at 10 specific types of trauma and categorized them as “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs):

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

What the study found was that the more ACEs a child had, the more likely they were to have social, emotional, and cognitive impairments. In addition, the study found that more ACEs lead to poor academic achievement

It is widely understood by experts that in particular, children in foster care experience far more childhood trauma than other children. If you look at the list of ACEs, the common reasons for removing a child from the home and putting them into the foster care system are on the list. As a result, children who are in foster care are more prone to their education being impacted in a negative way. For my next blog, I will be looking at data and research surrounding the impact of trauma on children’s education and in particular will focus on youth in the foster care system.

*My student’s real name was changed to Javier in order to protect anonymity

**For more on typical school discipline and the way it impacts children suffering from trauma, stay tuned for my Stage 3 blog post