Assessing how schools react to children who have been exposed to trauma and finding creative solutions for helping children succeed at school were two of the main themes of a Trauma, Schools and Poverty Conference, organized by Rutgers Law Professor David Troutt and the Center for Law, Inequality and Metropolitan Equity, which he directs.
Chancellor Nancy Cantor gave the opening remarks and focused on issues of child trauma in Newark that she said are exacerbated by poverty and systematic racism, an issue Mayor Ras Baraka calls ‘the public health crisis’ which derails children from schools into the criminal justice system.
“Psychological trauma stops children every day from thriving,” she said. Cantor, a social psychologist, said it is important to reform institutions that are supposed to be helping children.
The May 5 conference brought together scholars, advocates, educators and lawyers – including keynote speaker Susan F. Cole, a Harvard Law professor, whose Education Law clinic teaches law students advocacy and litigation skills for traumatized children.
She said creating a trauma-sensitive environment for children in schools is key to helping them stay in school and succeed, “Trauma sensitivity requires a culture change. Helping traumatized children learn should be a major focus of education reform.”
She said children can experience trauma in their lives through physical, sexual or psychological abuse, from living with parents who are involved in domestic violence, substance abuse, or criminal behavior; and from living in abject poverty.
Those traumatic experiences impact student classroom behavior and academic performance and their relationships with teachers and peers. Cole said it may be difficult for children to transition from one thing to another, they may exhibit behavior that ranges from impulsiveness to aggression and it may be hard for them to form positive relationships because of trust issues. In addition, children may push people away who want to help them and have a low sense of self.
Cole says schools often punish children for their reaction to trauma, which starts a cycle that can lead to suspension, expulsion, dropping out of school, with children ultimately ending up in the juvenile justice system.
She said students need widespread community support, in addition to school, to succeed and that schools must be a place where they feel welcomed and supported and safe. Cole said schools can train their staff and administration to treat children in holistic ways, embrace teamwork and help children learn to self-regulate their behavior.
Other speakers talked about everything from how trauma affects children’s brains, to encouraging students to write poetry as part of classroom lessons to help them give voice to trauma.
Susan Cohen Equilin, a psychologist, said traumatized children often have disproportionate reactions and are more likely to get classified with ADHD or bipolar disorder and more likely to get medicated.
The experts also pointed out that trauma disproportionately effects students of color, particularly those who grow up in impoverished neighborhoods. Students can be traumatized by chronic hunger, fear for their safety, witnessing violence, losing a loved one to violence or incarceration and from experiencing racism and discrimination.
Susan Dutro, a professor at the University of Colorado, said she works with teachers in Colorado public schools to help them provide a way for students to voice their experiences through writing.
Teachers can use their own testimony or personal stories, have welcoming body language to vulnerable children, and provide empathy for children in the classroom. By giving students the ability to write their feelings in journals, through poetry and other assignments, adults serve as witnesses to the child’s experience.
Trevor Melton from the New Jersey Dept. of Education encouraged teachers to be mindful about their students’ experiences – whether it is worrying about their next meal, fear for their safety going to and from school, living in foster care, or living in a violent neighborhood. He said teachers, administrators, nurses, counselors need to work together to help students dealing with trauma. Melton added that there needs to be better communication between law enforcement and other community partners to alert schools when a traumatic event has happened in a child’s life.
Troutt said he spent two years preparing for this conference and wanted to bring together experts to help poor and vulnerable children. Though the conference focused on education, many speakers said policy changes also are needed and revisions to state and federal laws. Troutt encouraged those in attendance to come up with strategies for intervention – but also for preventing childhood trauma in the first place by addressing the role of public institutions in compounding the structural inequality at its source.