Tackling Childhood Trauma in DC Schools

06/24/2015 10:41 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

Think about a time when you were a child and heard a strange sound in the middle of the night. Your heart probably started beating faster. Every little noise was amplified because of a heightened sense of hearing. You got tunnel vision.

These physiological reactions are part of our body's natural fight-or-flight reaction to danger. Without any conscious effort on your part, your body was getting ready to defend itself. Depending on your personal make-up - and how many times it had happened before - your response could have been to yell out for help or to hide under the covers.

This fight-or-flight response is something that DC children who have been traumatized experience all the time - including in their classrooms. It makes sense that children who have witnessed gun violence or bounced from one foster family to another will be preoccupied with those events instead of focusing on their teachers. But brain research makes clear that the impact of trauma is deeper than that. Some traumatized children can't focus because their brains have a "flight" response that is triggered by a perceived threat in a situation that may seem ordinary to you or me. The same perceived threat can trigger a "fight" response that leads other traumatized children to misbehave and disrupt their classrooms.

Trauma can impact every area of a child's life, including school. Students who have experience trauma are more likely to be referred for special education, have higher rates of school discipline referrals and suspensions, lower test scores and grades, and are less likely to graduate.

Take Janice,* for example, a young middle school student. Previously a good student, she suddenly stopped wanting to go to class so her mother started to walk her to school every day. Sometimes this worked, but more often than not Janice would stop at the school's front steps and start crying. Some days she would start screaming and simply refuse to go into the school building. Other days she would start out okay but then be sent home because of a breakdown.

It turns out that Janice had been sexually assaulted that past summer. In response to this traumatic experience, she started to feel unsafe much of the time, but especially at school. Lacking trauma training, the teachers and staff at her middle school didn't know how to handle her escalating outbursts. They viewed her as a "problem child" and would often just stand around or call her mom. Janice's grades plummeted.

Unfortunately, far too many DC students like Janice have experienced traumatic events. One study found that 40% of our high school students witnessed violence during the year. There were over 30,000 domestic violence calls to DC police in 2013. About 4,000 DC public school students were homeless that same school year.

In Janice's case, we worked to get her transferred to a different school with an onsite counseling program. And there was one seemingly small change about her new school that made a world of difference, according to Janice's mom. At the start of each day, staff at her new school walked outside to say good morning to students and escort them into the building.

Having staff walk her into the school made Janice feel safer. Janice also bonded with a school attendance counselor, one of the people who greeted her every morning. Because the attendance counselor made her feel comfortable, school leaders gave Janice permission to go see her whenever she started to feel anxious during the day. It all helped.

Whether intentional or not, Janice's school was incorporating a number of best practices of trauma-sensitive schools. These are schools that recognize children need to feel safe in order to learn, and take concrete steps to support students. Trauma-sensitive schools train all of their staff - from teachers to janitors to crossing guards to attendance counselors - how to make children feel welcomed. They also train staff to recognize when children are struggling with trauma and teach them to respond appropriately.

The good news is that a few DC schools are instituting trauma-sensitive practices, like greeting children by name as they enter school each morning. Many schools also have programs in place that can help students who are recovering from trauma. And several District agencies are training school staff about trauma and providing support to schools, including DC's Child and Family Services Agency, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and the DC Public Schools system. Unfortunately, these practices and programs are often instituted piecemeal and are not available to all who need them.

What more should District leaders do? Children's Law Center just released a policy paper, Addressing Childhood Trauma in DC Schools, with recommendations. We share best practices from other states and call for all DC public and charter schools to adopt plans to become more trauma sensitive. We also urge the Mayor to create a new position to coordinate schools' efforts and develop a model trauma-sensitive schools policy, among other suggestions.

With thousands of DC students coming to school each day who have experienced traumatic events, the stark reality is that education reforms in the District will not fully succeed if schools do not address trauma. And, our children like Janice deserve nothing less.

*We work hard to protect the confidentiality of our clients and have changed Janice's name for this reason. All other details are true.