Trauma Impacts Children’s Behavior and Achievement in DC Schools

Happy New Year!  The holiday season is fading deeper and deeper into our rear view. The season provided respite — an escape in which to bask in cultural and religious festivities, reconnect with family, reflect on the past year and make new commitments.  For many adults, the holidays also brought great stress.  They felt mental and emotional anguish caused by job pressures, financial difficulties, strained relationships, and the mourning of loved ones who have passed.  Surely, the passage of time will not by itself usher all of these problems away.  Similarly, for many children the holidays pressed into sharp relief the mental and emotional struggles they have endured during the past year.  Trauma and continuing circumstances that cause children to feel toxic stress are one source of mental and emotional struggle for children.

Has your child experienced or witnessed 1 or more of the following adverse events in the past year or more?

  • Divorce
  • Homelessness
  • Incarceration or other separation from a parent
  • Violence in the home or violence in the community
  • Depression of a parent in the home
  • Death of a parent or very close relative
  • Physical abuse, sexual abuse or emotional abuse
  • Chronic neglect

Is your child also struggling with 1 or more of the following issues in school?

  • Impulse control
  • Anger outbursts
  • Depression, withdrawal
  • Inability to calm down
  • Frequent aggressive, attention-getting or rule breaking behaviors
  • Frequent in or out of school suspensions or other exclusion from the classroom
  • Inattention, easy distraction, ADHD
  • Reading well below grade level and other academic failure in school
  • Struggle with speech, language
  • Threatening self-injury or expressing ideas about suicide

If your child has experienced or witnessed any of the adverse events described above and is also experiencing behavioral and academic struggles in school, then read on.  You will learn how adverse experiences can negatively impact children’s brain development, their behavior and academic achievement in school, and their adult health outcomes.  You will also learn steps that you can take to address the impact of adverse experiences and toxic stress on your child, starting this yearRead this especially if your child has an IEP or a behavior intervention plan or if you think your child should be evaluated to determine if she has a learning or other disability.

HOW CAN TRAUMA AND SITUATIONS THAT CAUSE CHILDREN TO FEEL TOXIC STRESS AFFECT MY CHILD AND HER PERFORMANCE IN SCHOOL

The Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente conducted a study (the “ACES Study”) during which researchers interviewed mostly white, middle class people to determine whether they experienced traumatic events during childhood.  The researchers also asked the respondents about their health as adults.  The researchers found that two-thirds of the persons whom they interviewed had at least one adverse childhood experience, and that 13% had four or more adverse childhood experiences.  The researchers also found that individuals who had more adverse childhood experiences were more likely to have poor health outcomes in adulthood, such as alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Research that followed the ACES Study confirmed that traumatic childhood events and toxic stress can adversely affect the brain development of children and their physiological and behavioral responses to stress.  These changes in turn can affect children’s attention, their ability to process information, their ability to regulate their emotions, their reading and academic progress, their ability to form and maintain relationships, and their social/emotional development in school.  Children who have experienced trauma or toxic stress are often failing school, reading below grade level, struggling with aggressive behavior and angry or emotional outbursts, and struggling with attention and distraction in the classroom.

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA SEEMS COMMON.  WHAT ARE SCHOOLS, DOCTORS AND MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS DOING ABOUT THE EFFECTS OF TRAUMA AND TOXIC STRESS ON CHILDREN?

Unfortunately, pediatric and child psychology practitioners often do not screen kids for trauma or toxic stress when evaluating children struggling with maladaptive behaviors or academic failure at school.  Often, when children who have experienced trauma or toxic stress are struggling with reading or acting out behaviors, health professionals who interact with them conclude that they are just oppositional, defiant, or have ADHD.  So, children affected by trauma and toxic stress often do not receive the clinical or other research based social/emotional and behavioral supports they may need to address their adverse experiences and to cope and succeed in school.

Moreover, most traditional public and public charter schools are not trauma sensitive. They are not staffed with administrators, social workers, psychologists, and teachers who have been trained to respond to children’s behavioral or academic struggles and responses in a way that addresses underlying trauma and toxic stress.  Schools that are not trauma sensitive respond to students whose behaviors are symptoms of underlying trauma and stress in ways that are directed toward the behavior, but do not address the trauma or stress.  Schools may emphasize organization, activity breaks, isolation, time out, token economies to address inattention and distraction caused by traumas or stress, in the same way they might address students with ADHD.  They might use purely disciplinary responses to contain rule breaking behaviors, such as frequent time out of the classroom, isolation and suspensions.  Some schools believe that class wide or school wide socio-emotional or behavior management programs by themselves are enough to addresses behaviors that are manifestations of trauma or toxic stress.  Other schools literally call on parents to try control the child’s behavior by pressuring parents to come to school and sit with their child in the classroom.

These approaches do not work because they do not address the root cause of the maladaptive behaviors –  the traumatic childhood experience or a continuing situation that causes toxic stress — and the needs of traumatized children to have trusting relationships, to learn to regulate their emotions, learn coping skills or have access to other research based interventions.

It is likely that your child will continue to struggle academically and behaviorally until the underlying trauma or toxic stress they experienced is addressed and adults interact with her in a trauma sensitive manner.   

MY CHILD HAS EXPERIENCED TRAUMA.  MY FAMILY IS LIVING IN A STRESSFUL SITUATION THAT I THINK IS AFFECTING MY CHILD.  THE SCHOOL RESPONDS TO MY CHILD’S BEHAVIOR WITH HARSH DISCIPLINE.   MY CHILD IS FAILING IN SCHOOL.  WHAT SHOULD I DO?

Parents, there is something that you can do to help your child who is experiencing academic or behavioral struggles because of childhood trauma and toxic stress.  First, at home, try to determine if your child has experienced adverse childhood experiences by taking the assessment at  https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/.  If your child’s ACES score is high, consider having your child evaluated by a trauma informed psychologist.

If you have access to such a psychologist in private practice, then contact that provider.  You can also get in touch with a trauma informed psychologist by calling the DC Department of Behavioral Health’s Access Help Line at 1(888)7WE-HELP or 1-888-793-4357 (http://dbh.dc.gov/service/access-helpline).  Once you call, a specialist will take information from you and can refer you to a community mental health provider that has trauma informed psychologists and provides other related services.  A list of community mental health providers who have been certified by the Department of Behavioral Health can be found on the department’s website at http://dbh.dc.gov/page/list-community-based-service-providers.  These providers take different insurance payments, including Medicaid, HSCSN and others.  Other community service providers, who are not certified by DC, can also provide trauma informed services.

The psychologist will interview you and assess your child to screen her for trauma.  The psychologist may use cognitive behavioral therapy or other evidence based therapies and interventions, may offer training in parenting skills, and may connect you to other services in the community to address challenges that have been determined to cause stress in child’s home or community.  Some providers offer family therapy as well.  The psychologists may be willing to work with your child’s school, including the IEP team and a special education lawyer, to provide input on an IEP or a behavior intervention plan for your child.  A special education attorney can help you navigate this process.