Stage 3 of 4: Barriers That Prevent Schools from Addressing the Needs of Youth with Trauma

My first paper introduced the strong impact that trauma has on kids’ ability to learn in school. I then explored the disheartening educational data surrounding our youth in foster care in my second paper. So, if we know that trauma affects learning, and youth in foster care are exposed to various levels of trauma and are therefore not performing well in traditional public schools, what are the barriers that prevent teachers and other school staff from being able to effectively teach youth with trauma? 

Introduction

During the 2017-2018 school year, there were a reported 1,125 students enrolled in public schools in Santa Clara County that were also in foster care. We know that in addition to youth in foster care that suffer from trauma, there are thousands of other kids like Javier (the student I wrote about in my first paper) who also suffer from repeated exposure to trauma that are not in the foster care system. I will refer to these students as “foster-adjacent,” given their similarities in suffering from trauma and their struggle with learning and education. 

Unfortunately, there is no way for a school to track which kids have had exposure to trauma. While there are trauma assessments out there such as the ACES assessment, screening for trauma at schools is still a very new concept with very little research. There is no reliable data that can show how many students in Santa Clara County have suffered from past or present traumatic events. One report has said that more than two thirds of children will suffer from at least one traumatic event by the time they are 16. Beyond this statistic, there are no exact numbers of how many youth suffer from trauma in each school district or particular school. The following diagram will show you which districts the majority of youth in foster care are enrolled:

But again, while it’s easy to see the data on where youth in foster care attend school, this does not account for foster-adjacent students. All schools will have foster-adjacent students. Trauma is so frequent that I think anyone could agree that there are no schools out there that could avoid having students that come to them with trauma. 

So, where do the barriers come in? Why can’t teachers in traditional public schools effectively teach students who are in the foster care system? And why do foster-adjacent students typically end up with the same low academic results as those in foster care?

Barrier 1: The Unknown

When I think back to Javier, I remember feeling so helpless. I knew about Javier’s past from parent meetings with his mother. She is the one that told us about Javier’s exposure to domestic violence. At least in Javier’s case, I knew what his past was. Knowing the trauma that Javier had been through made me realize that the behaviors I was seeing in the classroom was a direct result of all the awful things he was dealing with internally. But there were many students I taught over the years that were just like Javier and I had absolutely no idea they were also struggling. Some students confided in me their darkest secrets and some never did. Some students confided in our school counselor and others confided in our Principal and Vice Principal. This led to other concerns – how much of this personal knowledge should we, as school staff, have shared with one another? There are many legitimate privacy concerns that arise when we talk about students’ personal lives. 

Barrier 2: Large Class Sizes

While I knew that I was teaching kids with trauma, I could only identify some of them. And even then, there was only so much I could do as a teacher because at any given moment, I had 29 other students in the classroom and so much academic content to get through in a class period. The large class sizes made it nearly impossible to have any kind of one-on-one check ins with my students. It was pretty easy to identify when a student was having an off day and I wished that I could give them more of my attention. 

Barrier 3: School Policy of Negative Discipline

At times, Javier’s behavior in class escalated to the point of me having to write a referral and sending him to the office, which always resulted in negative discipline. I knew this wasn’t at all the best way to deal with the underlying traumathat caused his behavior in the classroom, but that was school policy. However, school policies regarding discipline rarely take into account the background of the child. For many teens, trauma affects their abilities to manage their emotions. So what may seem like an irrational outburst to the average adult, it is actually perfectly aligned with the way trauma affects behavior. 

Barrier 4: Lack of School Counselors

Often times, I felt like what Javier needed was someone to talk to. We had ONE school counselor on our campus that served 400 students in 6th-8thgrade. I was lucky that I worked at a school that had an absolutely amazing counselor. However, the chances of her being available to check in with Javier when I called her was very few and far between. She had 399 other students that could also need her at any time. If we look at schools in Santa Clara County as a whole, there are on average 821 students per 1 school counselor. How effective do you think a single counselor can be with an average of 821 students to tend to? What if all 821 students are foster-adjacent youth? 

Barrier 5: Lack of Extracurricular Activities

Playing soccer was one of the few things I saw Javier do that gave him pure joy. He was happiest when playing. The fact that he was in and out of class on a daily basis because of behavior in his classes led to a decline in grades. Per school/district policy, student athletes had to maintain a certain GPA in order to be eligible to participate in sports and as you could imagine, Javier struggled to maintain this GPA. Aside from after school sports, there were no other activities, clubs, or organizations that Javier could join at school. So where did this leave him when the school day was over? 

Barrier 6: Trauma Is Not a Recognized Learning Disability

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan were not options either. These two services are provided at every public school for students with learning disabilities. However, Javier did not have a learning disability. While his grades weren’t exactly very good, all his teachers knew that he was very bright and was capable of doing the work if he was in the right state of mind. Trauma is not currently recognized as a learning disability and is therefore not supported by an IEP or a 504 plan. At this point, I was all out of options. Aside from an IEP or 504, there weren’t any other educational supports set up at the school I taught at that I could provide for Javier. Though I hate to admit this, I secretly hoped sometimes that Javier DID have a learning disability that way I could get him some type of support!

Conclusion

I felt like I failed this student. I happened to be his math and science teacher for 3 years (teaching him in 6th, then 7th, then 8th), which is very rarely the case with any given student. We built a very strong teacher-student relationship and by his 8thgrade year, he was doing really well in my classes as compared to when he came to me as a 6thgrader. But his behavior did not really improve in other classes. When his 8thgrade graduation activities started getting taken away from him as a form of punishment, my heart broke for him. 

Javier just recently turned 17 years old and should be in 11thgrade. Instead, he has dropped out of school. The trauma he endured as a young boy has still never been dealt with to this day. Today, I wonder about the “what if”. What if his middle school had been able to offer him what he needed? Would Javier still be in school today if he received help?

Kids with trauma clearly have needs that cannot be met with the current public school system and the way that most schools are operated. My next post will focus on how I think schools can overcome these barriers with more funding, more counselors and a way of identifying trauma in students. 

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