Stage 4 of 4: How Schools Can Improve the Academic Achievement of Youth with Trauma

I. Introduction

Part of what drove me to law school was a desire to leave the teaching profession. I left undergrad in 2008 and had been working with kids ever since. What I learned very quickly was that many of the youth I worked with had needs that I could never meet. The needs they had were not just educational. Many of the times they had emotional needs that I did not know how to handle. I cared SO much and yet felt so helpless. 

For my research this semester, I focused on youth in the foster care system as well as foster-adjacent youth because they ALL deal with some type of trauma. These youth have behavioral issues inside the classroom as a result of trauma from childhood (see my first post for more on how trauma directly impacts a youth’s education). The educational data is shocking. Youth in foster care are severely behind in reading, writing, math, and graduating from high school (for more on this, please see my second post). Most recently, I looked at what I thought were the 6 most common barriers that schools (teachers in particular) face when confronted with a student with trauma (post three). 

All of this research has led me to this final stage. How can schools effectively address the educational and emotional needs of youth with trauma? In this paper, I will discuss the various ways that schools can overcome the barriers I mentioned in my third post by examining how and why schools need to become “trauma-informed”, provide extracurricular activities, provide more counselors and reduce class sizes. 

II. Becoming a “Trauma-Informed School System”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s (NCTSN) mission is to “raise the standard of care and improve access to services for traumatized children, their families and communities throughout the United States.” There is a vast amount of resources already developed and shared on their website and it is all free! They provide different types of resources for kids, parents, foster parents, teachers, school administrators and more. I will be focusing on NCTSN’s available resources and recommendations for schools to become “trauma-informed”. 

Before we look at the specific things schools can do to become trauma-informed, it is important to understand what it means to be trauma-informed. The NCTSN defines a trauma-informed school system as one in which the school as a whole “creates an environment with clear expectations for everyone, open communication, and a collective commitment to a safe and nurturing school culture.” In addition, a trauma-informed school 1) realizes the widespread impact of trauma and pathways to recovery, 2) recognizes trauma signs and symptoms, 3) responds by integrating knowledge about trauma into all facets of the system and 4) resists re-traumatizing trauma-impacted students. So, how does a school go about doing this? 

Please note that while the NCTSN lists 10 essential elements of how to be a trauma-informed school, I am focusing on the following 4 essential elements that I think are the most important: 

1. Identifying Youth with Trauma

While it may prove to be very difficult to formally screen youth for trauma through direct questionnaires (due to privacy concerns and potential parent pushback), schools can still assess for trauma through indirect means such as observing signs, symptoms and risk factors related to a potential traumatic event. 

Why is this important? School staff can use trauma-related data to inform their decisions about a student’s grades, attendance, nurse visits, behavioral incidents and more. As a result, the school can do a better job of assisting students with academic and behavioral support as needed. 

2. Educational Assessments for all Youth with Trauma

As I mentioned in my previous post, students that have learning disabilities qualify for what is known as an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 Accommodation Plan. These services are provided through the Special Education Department at public schools. However, trauma, by itself, is NOT recognized as a learning disability. This means that currently, only students that have trauma along with a recognized learning disability can qualify for special education services. 

On the other hand, a trauma-informed school can provide services to both types of students:

3. School Staff Training in Trauma

Schools could provide intensive training for teachers, counselors, nurses, coaches, office staff, janitors, and any other adults that will interact with students so that they understand what trauma is, how it affects kids, and the behaviors that may result. In addition, staff could be trained on how to deal with emergencies and crises that may arise in order to avoid re-traumatizing youth. Lastly, training for staff could be provided in the areas of creating, sustaining and promoting a positive and safe learning environment as well as how to deal with unhealthy social conflicts that may arise between youth.

4. Revising School Discipline Policies

As it currently stands in the vast majority of schools, when bad behavior by a student occurs, schools focus on “punishing” the student and removing them from a situation where safety of other students is in jeopardy. However, a trauma-informed schools would address both the safety of other students and the student with bad behavior. Trauma-informed schools could also utilize resources in order to help these students learn skills that will prevent these types of behaviors from happening in the future. The goal here would be to help students find a way to effectively be inside the classroom which would set them up for success. 

Schools should not use out-of-school discipline such as suspensions or being sent home early as a disciplinary tool. All this does is perpetuate the problem. If a child is not able to effectively learn in a class environment, how is sending them home solving anything? In addition, school resource officers (police on school campuses) should not be used as a punitive response to student behavior. Instead, these resource officers could be integrated into the school culture in order to increase the trust among students. 

What about the students that constantly exhibit “bad” behavior? More support services will be needed to address the underlying causes of the behavior which would lead to the “Behavior Support Plan” that was outlined in the chart above

III. Why Extracurricular Activities?

An article shared by the National Center for Youth Law reports that efforts to improve educational outcomes for foster youth in recent years have for the most part ignored the role that extracurricular activities can play in a student’s overall academic performance in school. In addition, the article points out that extracurricular activities for youth in foster care (as well as foster-adjacent youth) are important because research has shown that extracurricular activities help promote academic achievement, ease behavioral problems, and encourages identity development. 

So what do schools need? More funding. It costs money to fund clubs, sports, etc. California has already recognized the importance of extracurricular activities, but this means absolutely nothing if the schools themselves cannot provide the activities. 

A look at five California statutes show that there is currently a commitment to providing youth in foster care access to extracurricular activities:

While it is important that California lays out these codes, how can these five goals be attained if public schools, especially in Santa Clara County, lack the funding to have a variety of extracurricular activities available? And what about foster-adjacent youth who have the same needs as youth in foster care?

While after-school sports programs can be found in early every one of our public schools, what about all the youth that don’t play sports? A quick Google search on the high schools in Santa Clara County will show you that there are a wide variety of after-school activities available to the students. However, a search on middle schools and junior high schools does not yield the same results. At the middle school where I taught, there was only 1 extracurricular option for students: sports. If a student did not play a sport, there were no other clubs or activities for them once school ended. I attribute this to a lack of funding. A look at Harker’s Middle School (a private school) in San Jose reveals that they have over 35 clubs in addition to 13 sports teams. There are no public middle schools in San Jose that offer the same amount of sports and clubs to students (or, if they do, they are not publicizing them online). 

IV. 30+ Kids in One Classroom

California’s public schools need smaller class sizes. Despite the fact that there are many studies on the effect of   class sizes on students’ academic achievement, there are many problems with the research because there are so many other factors that impact academic achievement. The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization that has experts conduct in-depth research in order to solve problems that face our society. Recently, two experts from this organization evaluated hundreds of studies that attempted to figure out whether or not class sizes affect academic achievement. What they found is that there are very mixed results that come from these studies. However, their overall assessment of the studies led to the conclusion that the positive academic effects seem to be the largest when they are implemented with students from less advantaged family backgrounds. If students are going to school with trauma, most often, that trauma is the result of coming from families that are disadvantaged. 

The counterargument against lowering class sizes is that this is too expensive for the state. For example, in 1996, California reduced class sizes in Kindergarten through 3rdgrade classrooms to 20 students and it cost them $1 billion dollars just in the first year alone. It is beyond the scope of this paper to estimate the cost of reducing all class sizes in every public school in California to 18. However, no matter the cost, this is extremely important if we want more of our students to be academically successful.

Beyond the research, common sense would lead anyone to believe that it’s nearly impossible for any teacher to have 30 or more students in their classroom and be able to effectively teach each and every one of them. All students are unique and come to school with different needs. The Center for Public Education advocates for class sizes of no more than 18 students per teacher in order to produce the greatest academic benefits.  Schools can implement smaller class sizes by hiring more teachers and decreasing the number of students that a teacher has in one classroom. 

V. School Counselors

Providing more school counselors is a third way in which California schools can improve academic achievement for youth with trauma. Each year, a team of Santa Clara County organizations (Kids in Common, Children’s Agenda Network, Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, Applied Survey Research, KidsData. Org, Santa Clara County Public Health Department and Santa Clara County Office of Education) releases a “Data Book,” a data-driven report with suggestions on how to improve each child’s safety, health, success in learning and success in life. In the 2018 Data Book, one of the recommendations was to ensure that youth have meaningful adult relationships that support their education and social and emotional development. This recommendation was based on a report that came out in 2015 which identified relationships as a main driver of positive educational achievement and dropout prevention. In addition, positive adult relationships were linked to an increase in attendance, progress toward graduation and progress among students with emotional or behavioral issues. 

As of right now, California’s Education Code says that school districts mayprovide a comprehensive educational counseling program for all pupils enrolled in the school district. This language is troubling because it means that school districts don’t even have to do this. It is optional. A quick search on California’s Department of Education Website reveals this:

What is more troubling are all of the duties state law imposes on school counselors if school districts provide them:

In Santa Clara County Schools, there are simply not enough counselors at schools that serve students with trauma. The third stage of my research revealed that for every 1 school counselor, there were 821 students to be served in Santa Clara County. According to the American School Counselor Association, there should be no more than a 250 student ratio to counselor in schools. I would take this a step further and say that in schools with a high number of youth in foster care as well as a high number of youth with trauma, the ratio should be even smaller, perhaps no more than 50 students per counselor. At a smaller ratio, counselors would be able to more effectively carry out important responsibilities for youth with trauma. 

As with reducing class sizes, hiring more counselors at schools would obviously come with a price tag. California would need to provide a lot more funding to school districts in order to support the hiring of more counselors. The average school counselor in California makes $68,000 per year. Take, for example, a local elementary schoolin the Alum Rock Union School District in East San Jose. The principal of the school has reported that there are about 360 kids currently enrolled in the school. Her students have access to 1 school counselor intern (a person who is currently enrolled in a Counseling Program and is working on getting their certification to be a counselor) for 1.5 days out of the week. The principal has also reported that while she doesn’t have access to any data as far as how many of her students suffer from trauma, she estimates that well over half of her student population come to school with trauma. I would recommend 7 full time counselors for this school. Just as it is going to cost money to reduce class sizes and provide extracurricular activities at all schools, counselors will also require more funding to be provided to schools. 

VI. Conclusion – A Parting Perspective

Just by being removed from their parents, youth in foster care have already suffered horrendous trauma due to the separationBeyond this, in some communities, more than two thirds of children report experiencing a traumatic event by the time they reach the age of 16. Kids with trauma are sometimes in the foster care system but this is not always the case. What we know is that trauma can have a devastating impact on children’s academics, behavior, and well-being. 

On their own, schools cannot replace the role that a loving and caring parent gives to a child. Schools also can’t erase the trauma that students bring to them on a daily basis. However, schools CAN vastly improve in the way they approach educating youth with trauma. By becoming trauma-informed, reducing class sizes, providing extracurricular activities and providing more counselors, schools can become a much better learning environment for youth with trauma.