Children in the District are disproportionately exposed to traumatic experiences, including poverty, homelessness and gun violence, that affect their ability to learn, a new report says.
But schools can help them by training teachers and employees to be responsive to their emotional needs, according to the report the D.C. Children’s Law Center released Tuesday.
“Education reforms in the District will not fully succeed if schools do not address the trauma that students bring with them to class,” the report says.
The report was released in advance of a roundtable discussion on trauma-informed schools organized by D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Education.
Advocates argue that trauma is a pressing issue in the city, where 1 in 4 children live in poverty, with household incomes of less than $24,000 a year. In Wards 7 and 8, the poverty rate is close to 50 percent.
Children from poor families are more often exposed to chronic stress and traumatic experiences. Last school year, about 4,000 D.C. public school students were homeless, the report says. At the end of 2014, more than 1,000 children in the city were growing up in foster care. And with one out of every 50 adults incarcerated, many children have a parent in prison.
According to the report, children can be affected by a single event or ongoing trauma. It harms executive functioning and their ability to regulate emotions, and it shapes how their brains develop. Children who have been traumatized often feel unsafe and can’t concentrate; they may be withdrawn or have a strong emotional reaction to something seemingly harmless.
Grosso said he became aware of trauma as an educational issue when he visited an elementary school to see its literacy program. The principal pulled him aside and said it is difficult for any reading curriculum to be effective when 40 percent of students at the school are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Since becoming the council’s Education Committee chairman in January, Grosso has said that improving mental-health services for the city’s youths would be a top priority.
Trauma-sensitive schools can improve academics, mainly by helping children feel safe and enabling them to build supportive relationships with school staff. There are multiple models, but educators are typically trained to create predictable and structured environments and make students feel welcome and supported.
If a student has an outburst, employees are trained to examine the triggers and the causes. Suspensions and expulsions are discouraged.
“It changes the way we think,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the D.C. Children’s Law Center. “It allows teachers not to think, ‘What’s wrong with this kid?’ but ‘What’s happened to this child?’ ”
The Child and Family Services Agency and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education have trained more than 440 educators in the Districty on trauma-specific therapies, and social workers in schools have increased the number of clinical services they provide. But the report also says there is no systemwide coordination of such training or services.
At the roundtable, mental-health professionals and leaders of a handful of charter and traditional schools described the difficulties their students experience and the different ways they are trying to respond to trauma.
Joe Smith, the chief operating officer at Eagle Academy Public Charter Schools, said his two campuses have 13 mental-health professionals working full time with children and their families.
“If a child does not feel safe at school, the child will not learn,” he said.
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