How Schools can Support Students with Trauma

Nothing in teacher training prepared me for how trauma would creep into my classroom.

During my first year teaching, Martin spent most afternoons with me, cracking jokes as he helped grade homework. Then in April, this bubbly, boisterous boy found me in our library. He stared from the doorway, silent and solemn. After a lingering pause, he said: “My father……shot himself last night.” My family has been touched by suicide and I still felt helplessly unprepared for this moment. I hugged him with care and told him that I loved him and was here for him.

Once a consistent and high-achieving student, Martin became disruptive and absent-minded. He missed assignments, started arguments with teachers, and wanted to fight peers over anything.

Martin’s trauma was abrupt, as were its consequences. But other students face unique traumas, and the impacts are not always so apparent. While some kids escalate emotionally, argue, and fight, others retreat inside themselves and withdraw. Exposure to trauma changes how a child responds to stress: the brain is rewired, with hormones and chemicals holding the brain at the edge of flight-or-fight. Seemingly small words, actions, or stressors can push a student over the edge.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic childhood events that alter physiology and affect normal brain development, especially of structures involved in decision-making and emotional regulation. An “ACE score” is determined by simply assessing exposure during the first 18 years of life to particular traumas including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness or suicide; parental separation or divorce; domestic violence; parental substance/alcohol abuse; and incarceration within the household.

As a person experiences more ACEs, their risk for adverse outcomes later in life increases. Research by the CDC suggests that higher ACE scores are significantly correlated with lower educational attainment, increased risk for chronic disease, mental illness and cancer, increased incarceration, increased suicidality, and decreased longevity.

Put more simply, unresolved or unaddressed childhood trauma plagues an individual into adulthood.

And though childhood trauma is remarkably commonplace — 52% of adults in Shelby County have an ACE score of one or more, 21% have two or three ACEs, and 12% have four or more—schools within Shelby County often lack the resources, data, and personnel to respond effectively to it.

I knew none of this when Martin told me of his father’s suicide. Though I found small ways to support his healing in the classroom, I lacked adequate training to fully support him in the aftermath of his father’s death. And while my school social workers were amazing in how they supported me and Martin, with large caseloads to handle, they were already spread thin. Many school social workers in Memphis are shared between multiple schools, as Shelby County Schools has only about 60 to serve over 200 schools. Many students only have a social worker in their building once per week.

SCS recently passed a resolution to become a “trauma-informed” district and will require all personnel to undergo trauma awareness training. While these are important first steps, they are not enough. Schools need significant investment in staff and resources to move beyond being trauma-informed to being truly trauma-responsive. We must better equip schools for the reality of trauma in our classrooms and communities because the unmitigated costs of not doing so are too high.

A coalition of parents, teachers, students, and community organizations—Stand for Children, MICAH, and 9-0-ONE (Organizing Network for Equity)—has been advocating to the school board for specific investments to address trauma based on research and input from experienced professionals in the field. We need teachers with access to and training in social-emotional learning curricula and other systems to create trauma-responsive supportive classrooms. We need more school social workers and behavior specialists so that every student has highly trained adults in their building to support them through traumatic experiences. We need more Family Engagement Specialists who can connect parents and caregivers to community resources so that families can understand and mitigate the impact of childhood trauma on our kids, thereby helping to reduce disciplinary incidents and increase school attendance. We need trauma-responsive pilot schools to collect data and serve as models to expand best throughout Memphis.

Join our coalition at the school board meetings on May 21 (4pm) and May 28 to show your support and ensure that the SCS budget for the upcoming year creates trauma-responsive pilot schools, funds additional support staff such as Family Engagement Specialists, and includes other investments in wraparound services.

Without proper supports, students with trauma can fall through the cracks, leaving their greatness unrealized. But when schools have the tools and staff to respond, students like Martin develop resilience, self-awareness, and coping strategies, bringing them back in control of their emotions and back into the classroom.

Every child facing trauma deserves a community of love AND professional support so that they can survive, heal, grow, learn, and thrive.

Dylan Moore is a teacher and department chair at a public charter school in Southwest Memphis, and a community advocate with Stand for Children and 9-O-ONE (Organizing Network for Equity). Originally from Washington, he has lived and taught in Memphis since 2017.

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