Beyond Letters and Numbers When Tragedy and Trauma Exist: Social and Emotional Support for School Success
Commentary by Michelle Porche, Ed.D., Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, and Lisa R. Fortuna, MD, MPH., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Teachers across the country are setting up their classrooms, many families are pulling together last-minute school supplies, and young people are taking advantage of the final hours of summer before reading, writing, and arithmetic become daily assignments. We’ve long considered literacy and numeracy skills to be essential to our children’s academic achievement but often this is not the entire story. What we must understand and be prepared to address are other social and emotional factors that hinder students’ success, specifically early adverse experiences.
Child abuse, the tragic death of a loved one, witnessing violence in the home or community, being a victim of assault or harassment, poverty, surviving a devastating natural disaster—these are examples of childhood trauma that often result in distraction and/or disruptive behaviors in the classroom. Additionally, children may experience the secondary effects of severe parental stress. Consider those who have lost their livelihood because of disasters such as the Gulf oil spill, or the strains of the many men and women veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan recovering from physical injuries and post traumatic stress disorder. Consider the circumstances for families when Dad or Mom does not come home at all.
Early childhood adverse events may be related to later substance abuse, unintended pregnancy, school dropout, and involvement with the juvenile justice system. While early risk factors can cut across race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status, exposure to urban poverty and community violence often occur together and are more prevalent in minority and immigrant communities. These factors may exacerbate risk of problem behaviors that interfere with learning. Most educators, already weighed down by expectations to meet changing academic standards with limited resources, are not well equipped to address the complex developmental, cognitive, psychological, and social effects of the difficult and even traumatic experiences that students are exposed to outside of the classroom.
The significance of childhood adversity became clear to us during a longitudinal study on literacy pathways to academic success conducted over a 16-year period (Snow, C., Porche, M., Tabors, P., Harris, S.R.). Some students who were identified during elementary school as being on a clear path for academic success due to their strong literacy skills and stated aspirations instead struggled tremendously during middle and high school. Common denominators for these young people included exposure to community violence, domestic violence, and traumatic loss. Recent examination of the correlation between psychological trauma and psychiatric disorders with increased risk for high school dropout provides further evidence of this problem (Porche, M., Fortuna, L., Lin, J., Alegria, M.). Research over the past several years have shown that at-risk youth are less likely to follow traditional academic trajectories and while some will ultimately achieve diplomas, certificates, and higher education degrees, too many end up on pathways with preventable negative consequences including repeated trauma experiences, chronic unemployment, incarceration, homelessness, and hospitalizations for mental and physical health challenges.
It is imperative that policy makers, educators, practitioners, and parents not only carefully consider investing in mental health services in the schools, but that they also build more school and community-based partnerships to help provide seamless and appropriate support services, especially for underserved, culturally diverse populations. Evidence-based prevention and intervention programs must work proactively with families, schools, and communities to address the varied causes and potentially devastating effects of childhood adversity. One such example of community-wide programming that we anticipate will result in positive outcomes for youth and families is a grassroots coalition of community organizations in New Hampshire dedicated to helping African refugee children and their parents adjust to resettlement in the U.S. and thrive after fleeing the atrocities of war. Similarly, teachers must receive support and training that encourages them to take a second look at distracted and disruptive children in their classrooms and make referrals for services which have the potential to be transformative while also ensuring appropriate discipline takes place. Resources are available both locally and nationally for educators and families; Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network are two such examples.
Let’s start the school year off right. We can boost our children’s learning by supporting their social and emotional health and recovery from early adversity. Let’s not have experiences of trauma and loss define our children’s success.