Roberto is an eight-year-old, former student in my second-grade class. (All names are pseudonyms.) In his short life, he’s experienced at least five major life traumas. One: his mother abandoned him when he was a baby. Two: he was placed in foster care with strangers. Three: he joined his father, but shortly after, Daddy was sent to prison. Four: Roberto moved again to live with Grandpop. Grandpop was ill and on house arrest, unable to leave his home, so Roberto was essentially under “house arrest” too, except for school. Roberto came to school, walked the perimeter of the classroom staring out windows, distracting other children. Sometimes, he just walked out of the classroom. His father was eventually released from prison and came to live with Grandpop, but Grandpop soon evicted Daddy after a fight with him. Five: Grandpop died.
Ashley, a bright and engaging nine-year-old, witnessed her stepfather break her stepbrother’s leg with a baseball bat last night. The police were called, invaded her home about 1 a.m., and took her stepfather away. This morning, she came to school as usual, but in a trance, unable to focus.
Jasmine responds much more aggressively. When she is off her medications, and her traumas are re-triggered, her tiny, wiry 45-pound frame can muscle a chair over her head. She screams and curses in guttural tones while heaving the chair at a classmate. She’s being raised by a hesitant uncle in place of her deceased parents. Jasmine goes home to a darkened row-house, with ”illegal smoke” wafting out the front door that hangs wide open to the street.
Jamar’s been absent from school. After several suicide attempts, he’s at the Crisis Center. Jamar suffered brutal beatings from Mom’s boyfriend, who stuffed a sock in his mouth to muffle his screams. He will come back directly to my classroom from the Crisis Center, without the dedicated adult support he is due.
Ashley, Roberto, Jasmine and Jamar had at least eight other classmates with similar stories in our one classroom at the same time. These four real vignettes are hard to read. They’re tragic. Yet these kids are only a small portion of my class. For the last 13 years, one-half to two-thirds of the students in my urban, public school classrooms have experienced similar lives. These children are only four of the thousands across only one city: Philadelphia.
Theirs is not a deficit issue. They’re not “sick” or “bad” children; they’re injured.
All kids want to learn. But neurological science shows that it’s physiologically impossible for kids to learn if they’re experiencing trauma. When they’re in “fight, flight or freeze” mode, the part of their brain that allows them to focus and learn shuts down so that the brain can efficiently address immediate danger. The more consistently it’s offline, the more impairment.
Meanwhile, our public school district has had to cut counselors to less than one per 1,000 children. In many districts, including mine, the systems are not yet trauma-competent. The minimum support staff cannot provide safety in all areas. Teachers and staff do not receive training in trauma-informed practices. Schools haven’t altered punitive discipline policies that can lead to re-traumatization — sometimes suspension and even dropping out of school — or shunting trauma-impacted students into the ‘prison pipeline’.
Instead of explicitly confronting childhood trauma from the start, we wring our hands and make noise about suspension rates, parents, school violence and dropout rates at the other end. We are going the exact wrong direction. We are ignoring the key variable. If we want children to become healthy, learn and succeed, we need to address their trauma injuries first.
It doesn’t matter how adequate the funding, or how good the curriculum or teachers if the children can’t engage. They can’t efficiently engage in ANY process while struggling with trauma and related defenses that impair cognition. They need trauma-competent systems to engage productively. Meanwhile, we all focus obliviously on managing financial budgets around academic processes with a gaping trauma-hole in the bottom.
Instead of developing trauma-competent systems, my district often hands “failing” schools — schools where ‘standardized’ test scores have been low for years — over to charter school operators. The test scores themselves can be suspect in many ways, but the handoff achieves blurred accountability.
The district’s “failing” school pronouncements beg some questions.
Why are so many urban schools deemed to be failing? What are the largest issues in urban education? How does the district paradigm address the specific urban issues? Without those answers, the handoff to “charter businesses” is academic gambling, financially fraudulent and morally vacant.
Even with a myopic focus on test scores, there is still no charter operator clearly, consistently delivering higher scores at a sustainable investment cost. I submit that the coveted scores cannot be dependably delivered, even with more money, new paint, some computers and more aggressive use of teaching faculty labor.
It’s time for all to see what the families and teachers in public neighborhood schools saw this spring in our Edward T. Steel and Luis Muñoz Marin schools: They saw that in the district-proposed charter conversions that even with extra funding, there will be disruption and change, ultimately without addressing the “whole” child, so in the end, the charter “emperor has no clothes”. When given the choice, those communities both voted to reject the district proposal. Instead they will begin to work on strengthening the existing neighborhood public school.
More frustratingly, the State of Pennsylvania took control of our district in 2001 to address financial struggles, yet our district remains significantly under-funded relative to others in the state, without any formula for equitable budget allocations. Nevertheless, the same “begged questions” remain equally relevant in the scenario that Philadelphia achieves its goals of ‘local control’ and dependable, fair funding.
What would we do to change the paradigm when we’re in charge?
Even those who think of education as “business” agree: Successful businesses become successful by understanding and serving the customer first. In urban public schools, many of the customers are trauma-impacted children.
Understanding our customers requires a fresh look at the research data and latest science.
First, the public health research is clear: There is a staggering amount of childhood trauma. Childhood trauma includes not just heinous events and natural disasters, but children who experience physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, or physical or emotional neglect; and/or live in households whose members are addicted to alcohol or other drugs, have a mental illness, or where children witness a mother being battered, or lose a parent to separation or divorce or incarceration.
These events are known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. (There are others, but these 10 were measured in the CDC’s groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.) Without intervention, ACE trauma leads children to distrust and to hyper-vigilance, or dissociation as eminently logical defenses. The chronic or complex trauma they experience and the behaviors they use to cope — such as smoking, drinking and using drugs, over-eating, raging — will ultimately reduce productivity in the workplace, cause adult onset of chronic disease and early death. Further, unresolved ACEs are often generational. Parents of trauma-impacted children often are dealing with their own trauma injuries.
Assigning blame to anyone does not help. No matter who is to blame, the trauma-impacted children will still come through school doors the next morning, children who have equal rights to education. It’s time to develop solutions.
The children are the responsibility of us all. The systemic costs of unresolved childhood trauma for us all are measured in billions of dollars for costs of violence, unemployment, incarceration and generational repetition.
The ACE Study shows that two-thirds of participants have experienced at least one of the CDC’s 10 types of chronic childhood adversity, and 22% had an ACE score of 3 or higher. This is especially startling, given that the 17,000 participants were suburban, middle-class, college-educated, mostly white, employed people with health insurance!
The urban numbers are even more shocking: the Philadelphia Urban ACE Survey shows that 37% of the population have an ACE score of 4 or higher. In north Philly, the scale of childhood trauma is more than double its suburban neighbors, with more than 45% experiencing four or more ACEs. Most of the Philadelphia public schools deemed “failing” and “dumped” are in zip codes where 30% of the population has four or more ACEs. It is difficult to absorb. It is massive. It is the elephant in the room.
Are they failing schools or do we have a failing paradigm?
Massive rates of childhood trauma should connect explicitly to our education paradigm.
The science is clear. Childhood trauma connects to education like a laser, through the effects of toxic stress on brain development. When children live in an unresolved chronic, traumatic state of survival, the toxic stress damages the function and structure of their young, developing brains. These injuries relate specifically to the prefrontal cortex and academic processes, especially crucial executive function, memory and literacy. The physiological process also leads kids to distorted perceptions of social cues, which alter their behaviors in response.
These children are 30% to 50% of our urban district. That means that in each classroom in north Philly, 13 to 15 children have four or more ACEs. Trauma-impacted children then affect others in the classroom with their defensive hyper-vigilance, aggression, violence, acting out, mistrust and opposition. The elephant in the room.
A trauma-competent system that allows for learning would include training for all. It creates a calm and safe environment for children. Safety includes physical, emotional, relational, social, and academic safety in all areas of the education complex — classrooms, hallways, cafeteria, bathrooms, offices, gym, school grounds, busses and more. Support staff interactions are as important as the teaching staff’s. Re-conceptualized “discipline”, and linking trauma-competent counseling to children and families, along with facilitating positive adult ‘connections’ are all crucial. A few schools with comparable numbers of trauma-impacted kids have provided similar structure; it’s changed their children’s lives and allowed them to learn.
Childhood trauma is absent as the explicit, crucial keystone of our urban education paradigm. We will not have a successful education paradigm, or even accurately interpret success while ignoring its overwhelming presence.
It would be like getting a new owner for the Phillies baseball team, all new uniforms, new equipment and a refurbished field, while nine to 12 players (30-50% of the team) are each dealing with four serious injuries: shoulder, hamstring, groin AND knee…and then they’re all told to play through the injuries. How well would they do compared with healthy teams?
I am not pointing the finger at anyone or any organization. This is a relatively new intersection of public health research, neurobiology and education. But note that there are researched-based models (district-wide, even community wide) that are already being implemented in parts of Massachusetts, California and Washington State. We can learn and expand further from these models, but it will take all of us working cooperatively.
Change starts with adults: comprehensive training, and re-envisioning what safe schools are to our customers — our trauma-impacted children.
The successful new education paradigm begins with being explicit about the elephant.
Daun Kauffman has taught in North Philadelphia public schools for 13 years.