Childhood Trauma versus Public Education . . . Let’s confront it explicitly

The Elephant in the [class] room.

 Dear Governor Wolf and Education Secretary designee Rivera :

I write regarding injured, marginalized children in our schools, to ask that you include them explicitly in a broad, “Healthy State” paradigm in your new administration.

I am an educator serving children in elementary and middle school classrooms in my own neighborhood in a major urban center for 14 years.  I advocate today regarding an aspect of education rarely discussed, but clearly visible to experienced classroom educators.  


The specifics regarding Childhood Trauma, which I come to you about today, apply to all of our neighborhoods.  Childhood Trauma is a tragic, life-changing assault on the minds and lives of children in all our schools.  Unaddressed (which is the general, present state), its ravages continue, life-long.



Childhood Trauma is not “poverty”.

Childhood Trauma is a response of overwhelming, helpless terror to event(s) some call “Adverse Childhood Experience” (ACE): Physical Abuse, Emotional Abuse, Sexual Abuse, Physical Neglect, Emotional Neglect, Single Parent Home (due to any: separation, divorce, incarceration), HH violence, Community violence, HH substance abuse, HH mental illness.

When a child is dealing with chronic ACEs in 3 or more categories, the impact can be devastating.  Childhood Trauma is powerful and shockingly prevalent.

             We won’t have a successful education paradigm,                                 or even accurately interpret academic results,                     until we explicitly confront trauma’s overwhelming impact.

The intersection of our educational system with childhood trauma is the closest and the most accessible aspect of this heartbreaking scourge.  Dealing first with Childhood Trauma in education is analogous to putting the customer and the customer’s needs first in business.  Dealing first with childhood trauma is also a prerequisite to understanding our education results.  Understanding results, in turn, is a prerequisite to interpreting our many “education reform” efforts with curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, as well as training and retaining of staff.

Finally, understanding the impacts of childhood trauma will be crucial for effective education investment in Pennsylvania.

Successful, trauma-competent schools require consistent, system-wide training and responses. Conversely, I can assure you from hard experience, with scars, that attempting to “educate” first, or respond to symptoms before dealing with the neurobiological impacts of childhood trauma is exactly like putting the cart before the horse.

It is crucial to explicitly deal with this “elephant” before we can clearly see and interpret academic results related to ANY other reform or investment.


The Power and the Prevalence

Childhood trauma has the power to literally change children’s physical brains, as well as their cognitive and social functioning and ultimately their life trajectories. The neuroscience is clear. Childhood trauma connects directly to education via its toxic stress effects on development of the physical brain.  When children live in an unresolved chronic, traumatic state of survival, the toxic stress damages the function and structure of their young, developing brains. These injuries relate specifically to the prefrontal cortex and academic processes, especially crucial executive function, memory and literacy. The physiological process also leads kids to distorted perceptions of social cues, which alter their social behaviors in response.  Eminently logical defenses in the midst of trauma(hyper-vigilance, dissociation), become ingrained habits, and then destructive, once the threat is extinguished,  but the defense pattern remains.


The prevalence is stunning!  Childhood trauma ranges from 20% to 50% of children impacted by 3 or more categories of trauma — a prevalence greater than our ELL and IEP populations (in some urban locations a prevalence greater than ELL and IEP students combined).  Researchers define the scope of childhood trauma as massive, “an epidemic”, or a “national crisis”, particularly in urban areas.

Findings from public health research are compelling.  The groundbreaking “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study” by Felitti and Anda/CDC found a “strong correlation between the extent of exposure to childhood ACEs and several leading causes of death in adulthood, including depression, heart disease, liver disease and stroke.”


This was a huge, quantitative study lasting several years involving more than 17,000 participants.  Ultimately, CDC researchers found roughly one-fourth, of suburban, middle class, mostly white, working folks with medical insurance had experienced 3 or more ACEs!

Three or more ACEs is significant because experiencing 3 or more ACEs correlates with doubled risk of depression, adolescent pregnancy, lung disease, and liver disease. It triples the risk of alcoholism and STDs.  There is a 5X increase in attempted suicide.  It doesn’t just go away.   Later, if unaddressed, it results in work absenteeism and lost productivity as measured in billions of dollars. All as only a few examples of the impacts.  

The classroom challenge is even bigger than the incidence of ACEs.  The crisis impacts all the children in the same classroom: when you experience the classroom dynamics and disruptions from one anxious or angry, trauma-impacted child, triggering another trauma-impacted child, who attacks a third child trying to work.  The epidemic diverts teaching and learning focus for 100% of the classroom.  It dramatically clouds our understanding of academic results. I wrote a much more detailed anecdotal narrative called “Danny goes to school”. Partly because of its prevalence, Pennsylvania is dangerously close to “normalizing” childhood trauma impacts in our public schools. 

The children are not bad or sick, they are injured.  At best they are invisible (see “What’s Missing?”) in the data and analyses, at worst they mislead our interpretation of the data and the resulting prescriptions. Presently, attempts to analyze data all miss the massive scale of Childhood Trauma injuries completely (Try asking for ACE-adjusted, education data).  Pivotal decisions are then based on these flawed analyses . . .

Sadly, Childhood trauma is still “the elephant in the room”. Unrecognized or unacknowledged and unresolved, Childhood Trauma obstructs education efforts and destroys lives.


1)  Use your positions to flood a spotlight on “the elephant in the room”.  Help grow awareness.   Expose trauma’s classroom impacts on a broad base, across our state via all your communication tools.

2)  To the extent that monies can be allocated, or exhorted, the next priority beyond awareness would be to invest in rapid, broad training for all educators.

3)  Construct a new level of close coordination between medical and educational and social services professionals for our state. This means including screening children as they enter our schools, clearly a potential hub of neighborhood-based access.  Then providing cognitive and social supports as explicit, state-wide priority — essentially the “community school” concept, but with a specific goal of addressing complex childhood trauma.

4)  Eventually children themselves should be taught “self care” for trauma-impacts, as part of Health and/or Social Studies curricula.

5)  Ensure that data is fairly gathered and clearly presented for variable trauma impacts.

You are probably ahead of me in seeing much broader benefits as a longer term legacy for Pennsylvania and even for our nation.  We have a choice to address the power and prevalence of childhood trauma, while children are still developing.  It’s a siren call to lead now, to address trauma explicitly in childhood, when healing can happen more quickly, neurologically, and academically, which in turn will lead to better social and financial productivity for our state in adulthood. Thank you for making education a priority and thank you for giving educators a voice.


Daun Kauffman                                                                                                                   A veteran educator in North Philadelphia public schools.

                               While we silently   “look the other way”                                                              equal access to education remains beyond reach                          for children impacted by chronic or complex trauma.


Stand with trauma-impacted children,    Call or Email or Tweet to Governor Tom Wolf   and Pedro Rivera:  

Keep it simple:  ask them to publically confront childhood trauma in education for Pennsylvania, or just Tweet or email a link to this post.  It will only take a moment.

Governor Tom Wolf                         Education Secretary Pedro A. Rivera   (717) 787 – 2500                                     (717) 783 – 9780                                     Email:                                                 Tweet:  @GovernorTomWolf

 An open letter to Governor Wolf and Education Secretary Rivera  (shorter version published by WHYYNewsWorks).