Bring up the term PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and images of war and returning veterans likely pop up. However, more and more, teachers in America’s schools are seeing the effects of severe emotional distress in their very own classrooms, and as they attempt to teach, inspire, and advance students in a profession increasingly driven by high stakes testing, they are often unprepared for how to recognize or support students dealing with psychological trauma.
In some school districts around the country, particularly in low-income communities, exposure to violence is an unavoidable reality. Nearly 70% of youth in urban areas report being the victims of violence and over 80% report witnessing violence in their community. According to Dr. Philip Leaf who studies trauma with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, for urban youth, trauma “is not necessarily an incident,” but a constant presence. In places like Baltimore, where the city reported 211 homicides in 2014, 11 of those being juveniles, it isn’t uncommon for students to witness attacks on other students both in and out of school, to have to worry about being attacked themselves (students with weapons have reported carrying them to defend themselves as they travel to and from school), or to return on Monday morning and casually share that the murder everyone heard about over the weekend was a cousin, an uncle, a friend, or a sibling.
“When you have young people dying in the teens and twenties, they are people’s older brother’s, uncles, aunts…they are the people’s next door neighbors. When these things are occurring out on the streets, people are worrying about…could that have been me,” Leaf says.
For some of these students, their ability to rebound from tragedy and carry on seemingly unaffected is astounding. However, for others, the impact of violence and trauma on their learning and well-being is crippling, with approximately 4—6% of youth meeting the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD. In certain urban communities, experts are reporting that there are higher rates of PTSD than in returning war veterans, showing that the mental toll that violence is taking on inner city youth is at pandemic levels.
The experience of trauma, coupled with the myriad of other challenges that students in poverty face, such as unstable housing, lack of access to adequate medical care, and hunger, can severely impact a student’s ability to learn and fully participate in their own education. For students suffering from emotional trauma, the symptoms usually come in the form of disengagement in school, an inability to focus, and chronic headaches and stomach aches, with some students even resorting to self-harm. Others may experience depression, anxiety, worry, or anger, with symptoms lasting anywhere from a few months to several years.
In Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, research reveals the connection between trauma and learning. “The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school.” When trauma and the impact of poverty on students are not fully addressed or even acknowledged, students struggle to learn, making them more likely to fail, more likely to be suspended, and more likely to drop out.
Yet in too many schools, the connection between academics and emotional well-being continues to be dismissed. While schools are staffed with psychologists or other mental health services, they tend to provide only a minimal level of support. The American Psychological Association reports Baltimore had 128 full-time school psychologists for 84,000 students in 2012, creating a ratio of about 1:656. Furthermore, budget cuts are forcing many districts to eliminate these personnel from their schools. This leaves students and teachers on their own to deal with whatever issues children bring with them into the classroom.
As pressure from standardized testing grows, schools are pushing to maximize instructional time even further, often at the expense of social and emotional health. In districts around the country there continue to be cuts to arts and physical education programs, despite evidence that they play key roles in brain development and can help with social competencies such as teamwork skills, self-esteem, tolerance, and empathy, as well as aid in engaging and motivating students. Sheryl Katakoa acknowledges in her article entitled “Responding to Students with PTSD” that for students exposed to violence, the effects can be lasting and can lead to a “decreased IQ and reading ability, lower grade-point average (GPA), more days of school absence, and decreased rates of high school graduation.” The research confirms that trauma can have life long impacts on learning and the brain. It also affirms the pivotal role schools must play in providing effective interventions for students and training for teachers and staff on how to recognize emotional trauma.
In Baltimore, a handful of schools are acknowledging the connection between stress, learning, and emotional well-being. With the help of nonprofits like The Holistic Life Foundation, schools are incorporating relaxation exercises to help youth cope with trauma and stress. Using programs like the Mindful Moment and after school yoga, this organization teaches students to use deep breathing and meditation techniques at the start and end of the day, and have now reached over 1000 students across the city in some capacity. These opportunities, however, are still the exception and not the norm for students in low-income communities, where students who need these services the most often have the least access to them.