THE BLOG
11/23/2015 04:16 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2016

The Spectrum of Educational Trauma

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Current methods of education, and evaluating academic achievement, are causing long-term damage to people and communities, with the greatest impact occurring in people of color, and in low-income areas. In 2011, I defined Educational Trauma as "the inadvertent perpetration and perpetuation of victimization of producers and consumers of the educational system," and in 2013, wrote about it here. By carrying out the policies and practices currently employed in mainstream American schools, staff, students, and parents alike are creating harm and being harmed. The harm varies along a spectrum, being least severe for white students, and most severe for black and Latino students. Examples of Educational Trauma that will be explored include standardized testing, value added modeling for teacher evaluation, bullying, the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD,) the use of prescription medicines to control student behavior in classrooms, and finally culminating with the school-to-prison pipeline.

Before exploring the spectrum, I'll present the work of Howard Liebman, PhD. As the Chief Executive Officer of Smart Horizons Career Online Education, he is the only other person I know of discussing and addressing Educational Trauma. It seems like Howard is most proud of the incarcerated students served by his district, and rightfully so as his organization received recognition from President Obama, for their work in criminal justice. Howard's work touches me in two ways: Firstly, he directly identifies education and trauma as related phenomena. Secondly, he addresses student educational needs with empathy and compassion. Howard Liebman's work addressing Educational Trauma with our nation's oldest, and most profoundly affected by criminal justice, is kind and respectful to their unique perspective. It offers "teacherly love," as Lisa S. Goldstein described in "Teaching with Love."

Howard said: "I believe humans may respond to educational failure in much the same way they respond to a traumatic event. Most people have a flight reaction to trauma. They run and do not come back." He sees students' negative experiences and negative feedback as events that can produce Educational Trauma. He describes a mindset that activates a flight response to school. He explains students affected by Educational Trauma as experiencing feelings of helplessness and disempowerment in school.
Like Howard, I've also taken a two-pronged approach to the intersection of education and trauma: Firstly, I've defined it from theoretical and clinical perspectives. Secondly, I've practiced and published empathic and compassionate pedagogical approaches to healing Educational Trauma. While I've tended to K12 students, Howard has nurtured incarcerated, adult non-graduates.

The spectrum of Educational Trauma begins with anxiety and pressure associated with standardized curricula and testing. Federal policies, such as No Child Left Behind, compel public schools across the nation to test students to ensure they are learning. Research studies however, contradict this practice; suggesting that tests are predictive of test taking ability, and not valid and reliable measures of information acquired through learning and thinking. The entire premise of demonstrating and documenting learning is flawed. The impact of widely implementing a flawed measure leaves students, parents, and teachers under enormous pressure to increase test-taking skills as school funding is tied to test scores. It is my belief that this level of anxiety is harmful to students, parents, teachers, and communities. Vicki Abeles, explores the depth of this problem in her documentary film Race to Nowhere, and her recent book, Beyond Measure. The use of testing and standardized academic expectations of developing youngsters is traumatic because it contradicts what we know about healthy child development and learning.

The spectrum of Educational Trauma continues with the problem of using student test scores to judge teacher performance. This practice is called Value Added Modeling. Value Added Modeling is a method of evaluating teacher effectiveness to isolate the contribution, or "value added," that a teacher offers to students in a given year. Statistical analyses and formulae are used to isolate other variables, such as: gender, race, poverty, intelligence, tutoring, and parental involvement, but likely contribute to Educational Trauma rather than offer valuable measurements. This practice stifles human creativity and the specialness that emerges when people connect in dyads, or groups, to learn and grow. Stifling the joy of learning is a form of Educational Trauma, and leads to symptoms of depression, anxiety, worthlessness, low self-esteem, insomnia, worry, weight gain/loss, and substance abuse and/or addiction. It appears that, we are more concerned with measuring gains, than supporting people connecting with people, in education. When teachers worry about their job evaluation being reflected in student scores, learning for the sake of empowering people slides by the wayside.

Bullying is next in severity along the spectrum of Educational Trauma, and the only example where students also have the potential to be victimizers, not only the victim. Bullying, in my opinion, occurs when students "identify with the aggressor," a defense mechanism identified by Anna Freud, in 1936. People who use this defense mechanism are understood to be shielding themselves from pain and confusion. They do so by acting like those who hurt them. It is at once empowering in a very disempowering situation and also lends empathy for the aggressor who is also empowered by their actions.

Bullying takes many forms; including by, and among, adults. In her book, White Chalk Crime, Karen Horowitz describes the horrific "teacher abuse" rampant in the US. Two other forms of bullying are worth mentioning here: Dr. Jennifer Fraser explores the bullying that goes on in high school athletics by coaches. She is courageous in her stand against traditional athletic practices and how they negatively impact young people. She traces them beyond schools and coaches, all the way to the courts. I include this as a form of Educational Trauma because athletics remains a key component of the legacy that is American Education, and it contributes to the harm of students.

Another type of bullying occurs when teachers and parents require students to comply with, and conform to, curricula not suited to their learning style. The bullying occurs when students are diagnosed with ADD/ADHD as a means of explaining unwanted behaviors, and subsequently medicated to ensure compliance. Dr. Peter Breggin documented the harmful effects of using chemical restraints to control student behavior in Talking Back to Ritalin: What Doctors Aren't Telling You About Stimulants for Children. Dr. Keith Conners has led the study of ADD/ADHD for decades, including authoring a leading test used to diagnose the disorder. When reflecting on the Center for Disease Control data that reported 15% of high school students have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, he called it "a national disaster of dangerous proportions."

The problem of using chemical restraint with non-conforming students runs deeper than bullying. It's one way students and criminal justice begin intersecting. Dr. Breggin (1998) described the 1996 International Narcotics Control Board report of 20 percent of students taking stimulant medication in some schools. With 85 percent of teachers having attended at least one workshop on ADHD, it was an integral part of teacher training. Professional advocates of ADHD were also representatives of the makers of Ritalin and presented workshops to teachers as a means of promoting dominant values about appropriate behavior and compliance with standardized curricula. School guidance counselors were trained to direct and advise parents for further evaluation by a pediatrician who was also likely educated about these behaviors by representatives of the same pharmaceutical companies. For students of color, the use of stimulant prescription drug use is associated with higher risk of future substance abuse (Breggin, 1998,) and could have disastrous effects on long-term outcomes. Students of color, and those who are poor, are disproportionately targeted in the war on drugs, compared to white students, which is one way they begin finding their way through the school-to-prison pipeline. When students graduate and no longer need stimulant medication to focus in school, and/or lose benefits associated with special education, they can be left with withdrawal symptoms and negative effects from discontinuing stimulant medication. One method students use to cope with this is by subsequently seeking drugs on the streets. Treating inattention and hyperactivity with stimulant medication has the paradoxical effect of trying to soothe the problems of poverty, racism, and discrimination, while also positioning young people for added discrimination and acts of crime to support addiction/self-medication. Criminal behavior in young people of color is associated with harsher punishments, and lasting effects, compared with Caucasian youth who tend to be excused and pardoned for similar criminal acts (Alexander, M., 2012.)

The use of stimulant medication for behavioral control of students serves as a severe example of Educational Trauma. It is but one educational channel for connecting young people with criminal justice, the other is through the school-to-prison pipeline. The use of criminal justice in schools that predominantly serve lower socioeconomic communities, and those of black and brown families, is the route to incarceration known as the school-to-prison pipeline. It's "the policies and practices that push our nation's schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems." (American Civil Liberties Union, 2015.) Schools are directing youth of color out of the learning environment and into the criminal justice system through harsh disciplinary policies, high stakes testing, and disproportionate referrals for medication to treat behavioral and attentional problems. Since the school shooting in Columbine, CO in 1999, schools have adopted zero tolerance policies in an attempt to promote safety in schools. The result of these policies has been devastating for students of color because it has included interaction with law enforcement and criminal justice, as a means of discipline for minor infractions of school rules (Kaba & Dee, 2010.) The spectrum of Educational Trauma concludes with this most severe form. The school-to-prison pipeline is perpetuating victimization at the societal level, in much the same way segregation did.

This is where Howard's work comes into full focus. Howard's educational model is serving incarcerated individuals who may have lost all hope in school being a "sanctuary" (Bloom, 2010) or "center of care" (Noddings, 2005.) He explains Educational Trauma as the event of failing and subsequently dropping out of school. In turn, Howard offers empathic education where compassion seems absent. I see dropping out as a defensive reaction to the culmination of a series of Educational Traumas so severe that fleeing to preserve oneself is prioritized over staying, fighting, and resolving/improving a poor fit with educational practices. Howard creates the future of a compassionate nation by meeting the authentic needs of our most profoundly affected students. It's personally gratifying to meet another person manifesting empathic education for a compassionate nation with laser focus on healing Educational Trauma. Now, there's two people talking about it and doing it!