NPR recently discussed some of the challenges and opportunities facing teachers of students who may have been exposed to trauma. In New Orleans, where public schools have largely been replaced by charter schools after Hurricane Katrina, schoolteachers have become accustomed to having students who may have experienced abuse or neglect, have absent or jailed parents, or have witnessed crimes. School discipline policies that previously only focused on a child’s errant behavior are now undergoing an update that takes these environmental factors into account.
There are currently five charter schools in New Orleans that are seeking to become “more trauma-informed.” In other words, these schools are starting to incorporate knowledge about their students’ lives outside of school in order to address their social, emotional, behavioral, and development needs. These changes are bound to have an impact, considering the fact that children in New Orleans screen for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at three times the national rate. Mental health experts and workers have only recently begun to understand that trauma dramatically changes the brain and intensifies the fight-or-flight response in young children.
Children with exposure to trauma might be disruptive in school, or they may be withdrawn and inattentive. Teachers are learning to look for signs of both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. They are also engineering new ways to resolve conflict instead of resorting to detention or suspension since sending a child back to a damaging home environment is not the best way to solve problems in the long run.
For example, some teachers begin classes with social-emotional learning, and students in disagreement are invited to use group discussion to resolve their problems. Another way teachers are approaching disruptive students is by renaming “time out” as “wellness centers”, and multiple teachers collaborate with each other to work the same students over the course of a day. The article also details the moving stories of students who have seen real change with this type of support that they cannot find at home.
Certain statistics aside, this story is not unique to New Orleans. In many urban areas, when children experience poverty and hardship, and there are desperate consequences at home and in their daily lives, teachers everywhere can be heroes that foster a “home away from home” in their classroom. However, these New Orleans teachers and schools have ventured into an unknown space in their mission to understand each of their students, and to address a holistic approach to health. By addressing issues, and not punishing students, a very challenging method, teachers play a vital role in the health and well-being of their students.