By Times of Trenton guest opinion column
on September 11, 2014 at 6:33 AM, updated September 11, 2014 at 6:35 AM
Tragically, violence, hunger, homelessness and abuse have become an unfortunate way of life for far too many students living in cities such as Trenton, where the school that I lead is located. Many students hear gunshots on a regular basis in their neighborhoods. Sometimes, they are threatened at gun- or knife-point or deal with the murder of a family member or friend. To make matters worse, these students are frequently forced to skip dinner or have to move from house to house or car to car for shelter at night. Some of them experience unthinkable abuse that causes even greater trauma to their young lives.
Many programs treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in war veterans; society is starting to realize how significant a problem this is for people who have fought for their country. Unfortunately, there are not enough programs to effectively treat this ailment suffered by public school students and their parents.
Public education policy ignores the sad reality that many urban students have great difficulty learning, because they are suffering from a form of ongoing PTSD that I call urban traumatic stress disorder (UTSD). This ailment is caused by violence, hunger, homelessness and abuse in the communities where urban children live.
It is clear that the traumatic experiences that many urban students face is continuous and not “post,” or after the fact. UTSD directly affects the parts of the brain that control emotions and memory. Studies such as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research on 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patients clearly indicate that traumatic childhood experiences are a fundamental reason why individuals do poorly in school and suffer later in life. Extensive research has indicated that the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory forming, organizing and storing, and the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions such as anger, fear and pleasure, are extremely sensitive to stress and trauma.
If a child is exposed to prolonged or extreme trauma (which is frequently called “negative neuroinfluence” or “NNI”), the amygdala and hippocampus change in a way that negatively affects a student’s emotional stability, memory and ability to learn. The bad news is that a chronic academic achievement gap between urban and suburban students exists because current special-education programs do not provide the social-emotional support systems necessary to address the neurological problems of students with UTSD. These young people, therefore, continue to do poorly in class and distract other students from learning. However, the good news is that “positive neuroinfluence,”or “PNI,” can reverse the changes to the brain caused by severe trauma.
Studies have shown that PNI programs designed to help students improve their ability to manage their emotions and self-esteem can help them significantly increase their academic proficiency. Programs such as Northwestern University’s Project Harmony music program (where students learn to play instruments) change the brain in a way that makes it easier for students with NNI to learn. According to Hugh Knowles, professor of neurobiology and physiology and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern, “musical training has a positive effect on biological processes important for auditory learning, memory and hearing speech … which appear to translate into better language learning results.”
Unfortunately, current public policy does not provide funding for the specialized medical support students with UTSD need to succeed in school. The academic achievement gap will likely widen unless policy makers support the expansion of PNI programs designed to address the social, emotional and learning needs of urban students who have experienced significant trauma in their early lives.
Dale G. Caldwell is the head of school of The Village Charter School in Trenton. He has served on school boards in Newark, New Brunswick, New York City and Trenton. He is the author of five books, including “School to Work to Success” and “Intelligent Influence.” He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.