Op-Ed: A Child Well-Being Model of School Reform

Below is an excerpt of an Op-Ed in The Baltimore Sun, by Peter C. Murrell Jr. and Jessica Strauss, which advocates for a trauma-sensitive approach to school reform.

The Baltimore SunA stark juxtaposition of articles on the front page of the Sun on Feb. 16 underscores how radically we must rethink school culture: A disturbing article about workers’ compensation claims made by teachers for child-inflicted injuries appeared above a report that Ceasefire — a diversionary approach proven elsewhere to break the cycle of crime — returns a decade after its first failed Baltimore effort. Young adults engaged with Ceasefire today will engage were the schoolchildren then. Children breaking teachers’ legs today will occupy the program a decade hence, if we don’t interrupt this cycle by putting child well-being at the center of school reform.

The chaotic conditions described as dangerous for teachers characterize the very places we expect our children to learn. Daily stressors inherent in inequality, racism and crime interrupt the learning process. In many cases, these stressors are compounded by school conditions and practices. High stakes testing, ineffective discipline policies and social conflict constitute triggers for the traumatic symptoms too common in urban schools. Certainly there are troubled children in our schools, but we allow our schools to become unhealthy places for children and adults alike. To break the cycle we must reduce what’s been termed Complex-PTSD — diminished well-being from protracted and prolonged stress and trauma.

We know that exposure to domestic and neighborhood trauma and loss affects learning. The Massachusetts Advocates for Children Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative identifies specific learning challenges for children exposed to trauma: receiving and retrieving information, social-emotional communications and problem-solving; organizing narrative; recognizing cause and effect; attentiveness to classroom tasks; taking another’s perspective; executive functions; engaging in the curriculum; reactivity and impulse control; etc.

Children exposed to trauma regularly misperceive danger; their developing brains live, the authors explain, in “a constant state of fear.” A frustrated, “stressed-out” teacher or threats commonly used to manage behavior can, when conveyed to chronically traumatized students, trigger responses disproportionate to the situation. And neuroscientists tell us that simple boredom, too, causes a stress reaction in the brain, demanding that we include academic practices in trauma-informed analysis.

While improving access to supportive counseling and mental health treatment is certainly an element of improving school environments, the solution is not simply to single out traumatized children for treatment. More children than we care to admit have been exposed through proximity, media, friends and family to situations that bring on traumatic responses. Happily, what “works” in trauma treatment is also good for all children. A broadly informed focus on well-being fosters environments that support human development and resiliency — benefiting children and the adults committed to their learning.

Continue reading this Op-Ed on The Baltimore Sun website, to learn more about school reform that keeps the well-being of  children in mind.


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