By Aaron Allen
Each day, our children enter their schools’ bringing pencils, paper and backpacks along with their individual perceptions of the world around them that are formed from experiences at home and in society. When children are exposed to traumatic experiences, they can enter a learning environment believing that the world is an unpredictable and unsafe place.
Seattle Public Schools (SPS) wants to create a welcoming environment for students in order for them to have better outcomes socially, mentally and academically. By identifying trauma and the needs of students, and by holding students accountable for negative behavior caused by trauma, SPS looks to correct discipline issues like disproportionality in suspensions that it faces throughout the district.
Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Brent Jones agrees that a healthy and welcoming learning environment is paramount to curbing behavioral issues in students of all cultures.
“You heard me talk about a welcoming environment,” says Jones. “That is when any student, but particularly when we talk about the disproportionality of discipline especially with Black male students, when they feel like they have something to come to school for. Whether that’s an adult that cares about them, experiencing joy in a classroom, that they are engaged in a subject matter, the teacher gives him or her the benefit of the doubt, they are engaged in extra curricular activities, I believe the behavior will follow.”
“A lot of times we have to have an inclination or a high expectation for our students,” added Jones. “If a teacher or educator believes in a student, the student is less likely to have behaviors that are less than ideal.”
According to reports, more than two-thirds of children coming into their classrooms reported at least 1 traumatic event by age 16.
It is believed that these traumatic stressors are the direct cause of behavioral issues students, particularly young Black male students, can experience in the course of a school day. These stressors can include experiences ranging from psychological, physical, or sexual abuse, community or school violence, witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, national disasters or terrorism, sudden or violent loss of a loved one, refugee or war experiences, or military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss or injury).
“I am aware of what trauma can do to children,” says Clinical Psychologist Dr. Ben Johnson. “Trauma does the same things to children that it does to adults except it is demonstrated in a different way. Children have fewer emotional resources, coping resources and control resources to effectively deal with traumatic experiences.”
“Trauma is characterized as being disorganizing, it increases uncertainty and stress and for some people when there is prolonged uncertainty it can create more stress,” added Johnson.
As schools are looking to re-evaluate their discipline policies and protocols to recognize the role trauma and other mental health issues may play in rule-abiding behavior at school, many school districts are looking to provide full-time student support coordinators to assure that the individual mental health needs of all children are met, and the use of external resources is coordinated and maximized.
Deshawn Jackson, a student and family support administrator at John Muir Elementary School in Seattle, has witnessed the struggles that many children deal with on a daily basis.
From providing support and discipline, Jackson is well aware of how outside influences and trauma can affect students and their families. However, Jackson believes schools are not going far enough when it comes to holding students accountable for their actions regardless of what may trigger them.
“That’s been the focal point,” says Jackson. “Not going far enough to hold our students accountable for their behavior. Our kids are smart they know what they can do, and they know nothing is going to happen.
“Technology which creates a lot of stuff, the Snapchat all of that creates an atmosphere at the school that is very toxic,” he added.
In an effort to help curb negative behavior, SPS is committed to providing students with the necessary resources to successfully participate in a positive, safe and healthy learning environment – which includes providing equitable access to healthy food to nurture the body and mind and physical activity to provide an outlet for excess energy.
Not all children experience traumatic stress after experiencing a traumatic event, but those who do can recover. With proper support, many children are able to adapt to and overcome such experiences.
Experts in the field of childhood trauma and how it effects the learning environment offer solutions that can help mitigate a child’s ability to cope and learn. According to Dr. Johnson, it is important for parents and caregivers to recognize the important role they play in helping students deal with adversity and overcoming trauma. Among other things, Johnson encourages parents and caregivers to:
•Assure the child that he or she is safe. Talk about the measures you are taking to get the child help and keep him or her safe at home and at school.
• Explain to the child that he or she is not responsible for what happened. Children often blame themselves for events, even those events that are completely out of their control.
• Be patient. There is no correct timetable for healing. Some children will recover quickly. Others recover more slowly. Try to be supportive and reassure the child that he or she does not need to feel guilty or bad about any feelings or thoughts.
School administrators like Jackson believe the school district possesses the resources to deal with the issue of mental wellness in our students, but it is a matter of making the decision to hold our young people accountable when trauma affects their behavior. By holding them accountable, Jackson believes that children can learn that decisions and actions have consequences and learn to act accordingly.
“Our kids are experiencing a lot of trauma, especially since COVID,” says Jackson. “Whatever they are dealing with they have to deal with it all day.”
“To me it is dire, to me it has gotten further away from what it should be,” Jackson continues. “Back in the day we took education a lot more seriously but then again we didn’t have all this other stuff.”
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