Interrupting trauma's trajectory in schools

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Dr. Lachell Wardell

A little over two weeks ago, Chicago Public Schools welcomed more than 400,000 students in over 600 schools. As each child filed into their schools, to begin their journey with an expectation to succeed, the sad reality is that a high percentage of these children are facing unimaginable challenges that may have a profound effect on their health. 

Many CPS students are facing a major public health issue: exposure to violence that has left them traumatized — violence in their homes, communities and schools. It is no secret that the children in Chicago are under siege, particularly children in the Austin community. They are experiencing high levels of traumatic stress that undermine their safety and trust. 

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, "Child traumatic stress is the physical and emotional responses of a child to events that threaten the life or physical integrity of the child or of someone important to the child (i.e. a parent or a sibling)." 

Constant exposure to violence can overwhelm a child's capacity to cope. The stress from the exposure lowers the child's tolerance for emotional and physical stress, which can result in behaviors such as fighting, defiance, checking out or isolation. 

Childhood stress also affects a child's ability to learn. It decreases the ability to focus and concentrate which can cause problems with learning and result in problems at school. The general reactions of the mainstream media and community leaders tends to merely blame the youth perpetrators of the violence in the community, without examining root causes or seeking to intervene with prevention policies or programs. 

Finally, research has shown that children who experience traumatic stress have poor health outcomes. A landmark study in adverse childhood experiences revealed trauma experienced in childhood has been shown to increase the risks for serious health conditions like cancer, substance abuse disorder, stroke, mental illness, sexually transmitted diseases, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic heart conditions. 

The trajectory of a traumatized child can be interrupted at several different levels. Opportunities to interrupt lie within the child welfare system, education system and juvenile system. The educational system's most prominent point of interruption to this pervasive issue is to adopt a trauma-informed care approach that increases a student's resiliency. 

Children who receive trauma-informed services have increased prosocial behavior and improved mental health outcomes. Studies show that effective interventions reduce the rate of recidivism. Other positive outcomes for children enrolled in a trauma-informed program include better coping skills, improved emotional and physical safety for students, and a decrease in discipline referrals, physical aggression incidents and out of school suspensions. 

A trauma-informed approach suggests that violence or trauma is not symptomatic of "bad people," rather it is a negative health outcome resulting from exposure to numerous risk factors. These risk factors are not limited to, but include: poverty and socioeconomic disadvantages, young single parents, social isolation of families, family disorganization, parental stress and distress, including depression or other mental health conditions; and parents history of domestic violence. 

Everyone deserves to live the healthiest life possible. Trauma informed-care is about social justice and healing. Trauma-informed care deserves the attention of CPS, because of trauma's insidious nature and its effects on youth. 

Dr. Lachell Wardell is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Clinical Scholar



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