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Confronting Childhood Trauma to Promote Student Success

By Jennifer Doeren & Stephanie Altman

Luis was 10 when he came with his father to Oakland, California, from El Salvador. The transition was not easy for Luis.

“I was having a hard time …. My father had no time for me and my mom was in El Salvador. I spent most of my time with my friends in a gang. There were rival gangs in the neighborhood. It was hard for me to walk the streets,” Luis says. Academics were not a priority for Luis, who admittedly did not like school.

Like Luis, students across the country are experiencing and coping with highly stressful and often traumatic experiences. Young people who are exposed to violence—whether directly or through friends and family—and to other stressors (food insecurity, homelessness, parents who are underemployed or work too much, or the added responsibility of caring for a sick family member or siblings) can struggle with school, experience poor physical health, and are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior, such as involvement with gangs. Children living in poor neighborhoods are more likely to suffer traumatic incidents, and immigrant youths and families may be particularly at risk.

While the public discussion on the impact of trauma on children has recently come to the forefront, research has long shown a critical link among stress, poor mental health, and a child’s ability to succeed in school and in life. Notably, long-term results of exposure to trauma include lower grade point averages and reduced graduation rates, along with increased incidences of teen pregnancy, joblessness, and poverty. More specifically, researchers found that students who frequently felt sad, anxious, or depressed showed diminished academic functioning, and students who acted out (showing anger, frustration, or fear) had learning delays and poor academic achievement. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, 35 percent to 40 percent of children are likely to screen positive for behavioral or mental health concerns.

Research also indicates, however, that there are opportunities to help children cope with trauma, mitigate negative outcomes, and put students on a path to academic success. Among the opportunities to address childhood trauma are school-based programs and services that offer counseling, mental health supports, and programs for social and emotional learning, which is how children “acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” For example, one analysis of social and emotional learning programs in kindergarten through 12th grade found that students who participated in these programs improved their grades and increased their test scores by 11 percentile points.

Here we highlight four ways that advocates are working to counter the harmful effects of childhood trauma and promote student success.

Elev8 Baltimore

An innovative national program, Elev8 integrates extended learning, parental supports, and robust school health centers that offer physical and behavioral health care along with health and wellness programs in schools in low-income communities across the country. Elev8 works to ensure student achievement and a successful transition to high school and postsecondary education. Elev8 currently has initiatives in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Chicago, and Oakland.

Elev8 Baltimore works with four schools in the East Baltimore neighborhood, one of the most dangerous areas in a city that had more than 8,700 violent crimes reported in 2012. In an annual survey administered by Elev8 Baltimore in partnership with Johns Hopkins University to determine students’ stress levels, East Baltimore students reported that they were experiencing 8 out of 12 stressors. Elev8 staff knew that their students lived “in a constant environment of violence and trauma” and that they “needed a comprehensive response.”

Elev8 began by offering students in need individual and group counseling sessions as recommended by teachers or counselors. However, the counseling team was inundated with referrals and could not meet the need for individual counseling. A partnership, called D-Stress Baltimore, between Elev8 and Johns Hopkins University helped meet the significant need. D-Stress teaches techniques to help students deal with anxiety and manage and respond to stress and trauma. Elev8 staff members explain: “Instructors from Johns Hopkins teach them to be aware of their emotional state, to articulate their feelings and then to take steps to calm down or redirect their emotions.” The program was incorporated into health education classes and allowed nearly 200 students to learn how to solve problems and manage stress in healthy ways.

While initiatives such as Elev8 have shown success, we need to consider a more holistic approach to student health and wellness, an approach that includes robust behavioral health programs and counseling, particularly for students who live in violence-prone communities and who experience high levels of trauma.

California Litigation

While programs and services have shown promise among small groups of students or individual schools, legal action could lead to more and better services for children across school districts. A federal class-action lawsuit recently filed by students and teachers against the Compton Unified School District in California could have a dramatic impact on how schools handle violence and trauma as part of giving children an appropriate education. The plaintiffs in the case filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The plaintiffs allege that students who experience complex trauma have a disability. They argue that when the school district failed to accommodate those affected students by not supplying mental health and special academic services, the school district violated the plaintiffs’ disability rights. If the plaintiffs succeed, the case could result in training for staff to help recognize trauma and for schools to move away from punitive disciplinary practices to a restorative justice approach. The court recently denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case.

The Compton case sparked discussion on the effects of trauma on learning and directed attention to how schools discipline students. Specifically, proponents of better discipline practices have started a movement called Fix School Discipline to encourage school districts to “eliminate harsh, push-out discipline practices and put in place solutions that work for all students.” These advocates urge a change in discipline practices because they contend that improper and inadequate school discipline—such as heavy police involvement, suspension, or zero-tolerance policies—are ineffective and foster the school-to-prison pipeline. 

The Fix School Discipline initiative is an actionable proposal that will help schools “focus on preventing classroom disruptions and reducing suspension rates while holding students accountable for their conduct.” In fact, Fix School Discipline’s effort to bring attention to this issue was rewarded when California lawmakers invested $10.3 million in a program that will “support positive school climate reforms and fix school discipline.” This funding could have a huge impact on efforts to abate the negative effects of untreated trauma.

Massachusetts Legislation

Another way to tackle the growing mental health crisis is with legislation and public policy change. Massachusetts is leading the way with the Safe and Supportive Schools Framework.

Part of broader legislation related to gun violence, the Safe and Supportive Schools Framework applies the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative’s Flexible Framework, which creates trauma-sensitive schools through better organizing and streamlining programs and supports that affect student wellness. Such programs and supports include a nurturing “school climate” (the “quality and character of school life”), professional development for educators, and initiatives such as social and emotional learning programs, antibullying efforts, and dropout prevention. The Safe and Supportive Schools Framework is focused on both statewide alignment and more whole-school approaches at individual schools. On the state level, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education convened a Safe and Supportive Schools Commission tasked with identifying best practices for professional development, strategies for improving access to services, identifying federal funding sources, and developing best practices for engaging with families who have children with behavioral health needs.

Individual schools are encouraged to develop action plans for implementing the Safe and Supportive Schools framework. Schools can access technical assistance (dependent upon funding availability) and an assessment that will help them develop action plans. The state established a Safe and Supportive Schools grant program that will award funding to schools recognized as implementing exemplary programs.

Chicago Initiative

Research suggests that between 53,000 and 80,000 students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools have a mental illness. National estimates suggest that of these students in Chicago nearly 30,000 to 60,000 of them would not be receiving care at school or in the community. Through the Children’s Mental Health/Behavioral Health System Capacity Assessment Initiative, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law is part of a team representing the public school and health systems, practitioners, researchers, and a health insurance company. This team works to ensure that all students have access to mental health supports. The initiative, led by the Chicago Department of Public Health in partnership with Chicago Public Schools, is conducting an environmental scan of currently available services in Chicago Public Schools’ more than 600 schools. As the lead researcher, Chapin Hall will link mental health usage data with other key indicators—juvenile arrests, public health data (including sexually transmitted infections, obesity, and elevated blood levels of lead), and food access and insecurity—and will gauge the capacity of community mental health providers and school leadership to implement new or more robust mental health services for students.

The first phase of the initiative, funded by Blue Cross Blue Shield, will clarify opportunities and challenges to schools’ taking on the harmful effects of trauma. We anticipate the second phase of the initiative to involve piloting programs in schools with the highest need for mental health services. The initiative will identify funding opportunities through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the recent guidance to clarify use of the Medicaid free-care rule to encourage schools to fund behavioral health delivery models through federally available funding streams. The second phase will incorporate parent and youth voices and will consider how to sustain innovative treatment models for mental health programs that serve youths.

In cities and states across the country, the public is recognizing that we have to address the trauma and violence that children experience and work to ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed in school and lead a productive life. Take Luis, for example. With the help of Elev8 Oakland, Luis turned his life around. He participated in after-school programs and took advantage of other supports, notably counseling: “I talked to counselors when I was feeling down. I had a lot of people who cared for me and showed me how to do better.” With that extra support, Luis graduated from eighth grade with a 4.0 grade point average. In high school, Luis became a tutor and mentor for younger children and went on to graduate with honors. Today Luis is enrolled in college; he plans to be a child psychologist.

Authors’ Acknowledgment

We would like to thank Rebecca Charles for her contributions to this advocacy story. Photos courtesy of Elev8 Chicago.

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