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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

First Things First: Trauma Sensitivity Before Initiatives

By Matt Fleming — August 16, 2020 7 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Matthew Fleming, an administrator from the central coast of California who has almost three decades of experience as a teacher and principal at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

It is no secret in public education that administrators and teachers often complain about the increasing number of initiatives. Every year, new ideas are piled on in order to tackle, and hopefully mediate, very real challenges and performance issues. And while the list of initiatives grows longer with each passing season, the list of successes, for the most part, does not.

The result has been an exponential growth of new programs, protocols, and projects that are assigned for every classroom teacher and site administrator. For most districts and schools, there are more options than the average ice cream shop has flavors, except that educators today are expected to consume every single one. The resulting malaise of apathy and burnout has been called “initiative fatigue” (Freedman, 1992). This term is at least 30 years old and now describes an entrenched reality for millions of education professionals in the United States.

How is it that we find ourselves with so many initiatives and so little success? Is there something that is holding our students back despite our best efforts at applying systemwide, research-based solutions?

The short answer is that we are facing an epidemic. It is not COVID-19, although SARS-COV-2 has not helped, but it is something that is actually more pervasive and which attacks our students’ bodies and minds with equally devastating results. In the United States, it is estimated that over half of children have experienced at least one significant trauma in their lives. These events have life-altering implications, contributing to the anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation well into adulthood (Filmore, Crouch, 2020).

And while the research into the long-term mental-health effects upon children is just beginning, the primary instrument used to assess childhood exposure to trauma was introduced a quarter of a century ago to identify correlation between childhood trauma and obesity. Setting aside that half of all adolescents are estimated to have at least one mental-health condition, the top five health risks for children are all strongly correlated with the experience of traumatic events. There is no escaping the fact that childhood trauma affects every aspect of a person’s mental and physical health (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010).

It is no longer a question as to whether or not our students arrive at the schoolhouse carrying the baggage of trauma. They most certainly do. As educators, we also need to understand what this means. Several studies in the last decade have shown that the experience of adverse childhood experiences does exceptional damage to cognitive function. And the more trauma experienced, the greater the deficits in learning (Blodgett, & Lanigan, 2018). Some studies now indicate that slightly more than 1 in 5 American children has experienced three or more major life traumas before the age of 17 (Bethell, Newacheck, Hawes, & Halfon, 2014). Yet most of these students will not be assessed, nor will they receive any therapeutic interventions. The result is impaired cognitive function and increased barriers to learning across all academic disciplines.

What then are we to do? Most school systems rely upon parents and teachers to report when students are experiencing learning deficits. Our experience shows us that this is inadequate. Children who carry the effects of trauma may present with obvious behavioral issues or as if they have severe learning disabilities, while others may be largely successful. A child who has experienced poverty, food insecurity, and neglect from infancy may have missed critical stages in language development, which will hamper their ability to comprehend academic writing. Many times, teachers, parents, and the students themselves struggle to understand why they are experiencing difficulty. That’s the way it works with trauma. Trauma affects mental processes and functions that are unseen, often guarded by a sense of shame and guilt. And it can take years to unravel the complex wounding given the best-case scenario.

If we continue merely to add more ideas and programs to our instructional models and strategies, we will continue to miss this point. Many states, like mine, require that our instructional models be research-based. But what does that mean, really? Presumably, these practices showed promise with certain, carefully selected sample groups of students and teachers. The parameters of the studies were clear and inviolable. But, for the most part, these studies ignored the messiness of such things as trauma exposure. Again, several studies have indicated that exposure to three or more of these adverse childhood experiences is significantly correlated to issues with concentration, language processing, school engagement, and overall academic success (Bethell, et al., 2014; Blodgett, & Lanigan, 2018). When a student’s memories of trauma are triggered, the primary centers of language and visual processing are affected. How then can we expect traumatized children to respond to instruction that has been developed for those who do not experience such disruption?

The heart of the matter
We spend a great deal of time and treasure attempting to improve instruction. Most of us could easily develop a list of 5-6 initiatives that our system expects us to use. I came up with seven off the top of my head while writing this. I get it, we need to address the specific learning needs of English-language learners and students with disabilities. Cultural understanding is crucial in our schools. But, what if we truly made mental health and healing of childhood trauma a priority?

Most of the schools where I have worked offered minimal mental-health support. When I was an elementary principal with nearly 1,000 students, we had to share a therapist with several other schools. Think back to the statistics I mentioned. If they stayed true with my school, then there were more than 200 students with significant trauma. Does that sound like a reasonable caseload for one therapist?

Consider this: New research into positive childhood experiences suggests that therapeutic intervention improves the traumatized child’s situation dramatically. Where a child with significant adverse experiences has a greater risk for almost every negative outcome from prison to premature death, those for whom positive experiences are created are more likely to thrive and reduce the trend, even if their environment continues to present adversity (Crandall, Miller, Cheung, Novilla, Glade, Novilla, Magnusson, Leavitt, Barnes, & Hanson, 2019).

We are in the midst of a crisis that is in reality an enormous opportunity. Even though trauma is pervasive and creates enormous challenges for our students, we might be able to change things if we are willing to shift our resources strategically and develop partnerships with mental-health resources in our communities.

Will addressing trauma be the “silver bullet” that solves all of our achievement woes? Probably not. But, I must ask, would we ignore any other problem that affected more than half of our students this way? We would fight with everything we had to remove anything that created such a barrier to learning for so many children. Yes. Cost is a factor. But it is past time to look for creative solutions.

I encourage you to listen to the stories our students have to tell. We might well discover that what preoccupies their daily thoughts is not what we are thinking about when we come to work in the morning.

We can always do more.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Bethell, C. D., Newacheck, P., Hawes, E., & Halfon, N. (2014). Adverse childhood experiences: Assessing the impact on health and school engagement and the mitigating role of resilience. Health Affairs, 33, 2106-2115.

Blodgett, C., & Lanigan, J. D. (2018). The Association between Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) and School Success in Elementary School Children. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(1), 137-146.

Crandall, A., Miller, J. R., Cheung, A., Novilla, L. K., Glade, R., Novilla, M. L. B., Magnusson, B. M., Leavitt, B. L., Barnes, M. D., & Hanson, C. L. (2019). ACEs and counter-ACEs: How positive and negative childhood experiences influence adult health. CHILD ABUSE & NEGLECT, 96. https://doi-org.lopes.idm.oclc.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2019.104089

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). The adverse childhood experiences study. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from http://www.cdc.gov/ace/about.htm

Elmore, A. L., & Crouch, E. (2020). The Association of Adverse Childhood Experiences With Anxiety and Depression for Children and Youth, 8 to 17 Years of Age. Academic Pediatrics, 20(5), 600-608.

Freedman, M. (1992). Initiative fatigue. Strategic Change, 1(2), 89.

The Five Most Costly Children’s Conditions, 2011: Estimates for U.S. Civilian Noninstitutionalized Children, Ages 0-17. (2014) Available at: https://meps.ahrq.gov/data_files/publications/st434/stat434.shtml.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.