- How big of a problem is this?
- What are the long-term implications on the growth and development of school-aged children?
- How can we spot this in our classrooms?
- What can we do to intervene?
Just how big of a problem is this?
How many students are coping with acute or chronic trauma?
A traumatic event is defined as an incident where a person experiences a threat, to either self or others, that elicits feelings of horror, fear, or helplessness. Generally, these things include experiencing or witnessing: violence (fight, assault, etc.), an accident, or abuse (physical, emotional, sexual). For some who experience a traumatic event, they may re-visit the event in their mind resulting in a disruption to their ability to concentrate, engage in behaviors to numb or avoid things associated with the event, or become more irritable, angry, or have trouble sleeping. These symptoms are considered normal and generally subside within a month. However, for some, these symptoms do not go away. They may be experiencing Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is estimated that 4-6% of youth will meet the Diagnostic Symptom Manual (DSM) criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD following a traumatic event. So, if you were to apply this to a class of 20 students, at any given time, at least one student would meet the criteria for having PTSD.
Sadly, that’s just acute stress. How many students are experiencing chronic trauma? According to Dr. Jamie Marich, “…trauma may also occur from exposure to a series of traumatizing experiences, such as growing up in a violent or alcoholic home where there are too many "events" to even name.” This is referred to in the literature as chronic stress where one experiences or witnesses high levels of stress, sustained over time. Chronic trauma:
“…exerts a devastating, insidious influence on children's physical, psychological, emotional, and cognitive functioning—areas that affect brain development, academic success, and social competence. Students subjected to such stress may lack crucial coping skills and experience significant behavioral and academic problems in school.” (Jensen, E.)
In Chapter 2 of the book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, the author Erik Jensen, provides a truly comprehensive description of how chronic stress impacts a student’s development neurologically, cognitively, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally. He also explains how children “…living in poverty experience significantly greater chronic stress than do their more affluent counterparts” because they encounter stressors on a more regular basis including: overcrowded or substandard housing; unsafe neighborhoods; enduring domestic violence (including criticism, neglect, social exclusion); marital separation/divorce; financial strain; frequent change of residence; lack of enrichment; malnutrition; drug use; exposure to environmental toxins; just to name a few! However, it is important to bear in mind that these stressors are not just confined to those living in poverty. Anyone of our students could be living in these conditions, despite how they “look” on the outside.
SIDEBAR: I encourage everyone to purchase and read Eric Jensen’s book: Teaching with Poverty in Mind as it provides valuable information for EVERYONE and it gives you concrete ways that you can help students in your school or classroom!! Fortunately, the first and second chapters are available on-line at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/109074/chapters/How-Poverty-Affects-Behavior-and-Academic-Performance.aspx. For those of you who have professional learning groups and are looking for a focus, Jensen also has a Study Guide to help you discuss and process the information in his book. Check out this brief video available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uxMsLYcPpQ.
Unfortunately, students coming to your school “…don’t wear signs that say: Caution! I’m experiencing chronic stress!! (E. Jensen) However, there are some symptoms that you can look for that indicate that a student may be experiencing chronic stress or post-traumatic stress:
- Change in behavior related to ATTENDANCE. Attendance is the “indicator species” of a school because it is one “…whose presence, absence, or relative well-being in a given environment is a sign of the overall health of its ecosystem. (source: Dictionary.com). Chronic stress has been linked in the research to 50% of all absences. If you notice that a student is absent, tardy, or is being dismissed more frequently, it is a sign that s/he may be experiencing trauma or PTSD.
- Changes in the ability to maintain ATTENTION or CONCENTRATE. Many, many students experience difficulty when trying to pay attention or focus on a task. And, it can be a result of exposure to chronic stress. However, if you notice a CHANGE from what is “normal” for the student, it is important to refer the student to his/her guidance counselor or Student Intervention Team.
- A noticeable EXAGGERATED or INAPPROPRIATE RESPONSE to a ‘normal’ situation. Exposure to chronic stress can easily trigger the fight/flight response resulting in increased impulsivity and a diminished ability to defer gratification. Students experiencing post-traumatic responses will often feel impatient, frustrated or ‘fly off the handle’ in response to a relatively minor set-back.
- A noticeable PASSIVE attitude or DISINTEREST in school or other activities. When a student is experiencing post-traumatic stress, s/he may develop a sense of “learned helplessness.” This occurs when their locus of control shifts from feelings of internal power and independence to one that is external, where they believe that “fate” or “luck” determines the future of their lives. According to the literature, this can occur as early as first grade.
- You learn of an incident directly from the student or through the grapevine. Everyone is so busy in a school that sometimes we miss the obvious: the student telsl you that something is going on OR you hear something through discussion with other parents, teachers, or in the community. Don’t ignore it or put it off. Let someone know!
Thinking back to the students in my classes when I was teaching, I would estimate that as many as 25% of the students my classes (of about 20) could be experiencing chronic stress or showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s as many as 5 students or an estimated 30% of my class! And, this does not include the number of students who may be targets for harassment or bullying while at school! Yet another source of chronic trauma! Which leads me to my next question:
What are the long-term implications on the growth and development of school-aged children and adolescents? And What can we do about it???
Stay tuned for the answer in my next blog!!
fatalism. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved October 24, 2016 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/indicator-species
indicator species. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved October 24, 2016 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/indicator-species
Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids' Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Marich, J. (2016) What are Trauma and Stress Related Disorder? Available at: http://www.eastcentralmhc.org/109-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/article/55724-what-are-trauma-and-stressor-related-disorder as well as http://www.drjamiemarich.com.
Terzain, M., Moore, K., Nguygen, H. (2010). Assessing Stress in Children and Youth: a guide for out-of-school tie program practitioners. Research-to-Results Brief. Childtrends. Publication #2012-22. Available at: www.childrends.org.