The following op-ed appeared on the Huffington Post on December 16, 2013:
The New York Times empathetically and articulately chronicles the travails of homeless children in its recent series “Invisible Child.” Young Dasani, the centerpiece of the series, is just one of many more children than we ever imagined who are exposed to highly adverse experiences every day. Adverse childhood events can come in many forms, from living without a roof over their heads, enduring abuse, or being the victim of chronic bullying inside or outside of school to living in a home with substance abuse. Unfortunately, when these experiences become overwhelming they can cause a traumatic response that can impact even the most resilient child’s ability to be successful in school and in life.
The good news — as Principal Holmes and the teachers at the Dasani’s beloved Susan B. McKinney School demonstrate — is that schools can help children reach their potentials despite the adversity they may have faced. Until recently, an understanding of how trauma impacts learning, behavior, and relationships at school had only been acknowledged anecdotally. But public health experts, psychologists, and neurobiologists have established an incontrovertible link that can no longer be ignored within education circles. The conclusion has never been clearer: traumatic experiences that happen at any time in a child’s life can create a cascade of social, emotional, and academic problems down the road.
In response a movement has been growing to create schools that integrate trauma-sensitivity into all facets if the school day. Recent articles by New York Times writer David Bornstein and HuffPost contributor Jane Ellen Stevens have described schools around the country whose students are benefiting enormously from this approach. Trauma-sensitive schools provide learning environments where children can feel safe and connected to adults and peers, and where they can feel part of a welcoming school community. In the classroom, educators understand how the effects of traumatic experiences can undermine the learning process and know how to respond. In a trauma-sensitive school every adult — the principal, teachers, specialists, lunch staff, bus monitors, custodians, and paraprofessionals — play a critical role, sharing responsibility for all of the students. They also partner, as the McKinney School did, in meaningful ways with parents and other caregivers, who themselves may be overwhelmed by adversities like trying to find a stable home for their children. We should commend Dasani’s principal and her teachers for all the ways they are supporting the many children at their school who deal with adversity every day to be successful. This story showed how several devoted educators made their school a refuge where it is possible for children to move beyond adversity to lead a productive life.
However, if we are to help all children succeed at school, we need a public policy agenda at the state and federal levels that can explicitly empower educators to plan proactively to create the kind of learning environments where students feel the sense of mastery, safety, and belonging that can mitigate the effects of extreme stress. A deep understanding of trauma’s impact on learning combined with time for planning and professional development will allow schools to address urgent needs of their own students in trauma-sensitive ways. In Massachusetts, the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative is working directly with schools and spearheading advocacy to ensure that education policy responds to the need for whole-school trauma sensitivity.
Schools that make trauma sensitivity central to their educational mission will benefit all students, whether they have experienced traumatic events or not, because everyone needs to feel safe and connected to the people around them. It is time to bring trauma’ impact on learning out of the shadows and make it a regular part of the way schools are run.