An Evidence-Based Indictment of Inaction
…Children’s lives hang in the balance
Powerful and surprisingly prevalent horrors are blocking access to education and ravaging children’s lives. Sadly, they remain “the elephant in the classroom”: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
ACEs include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse [including bullying], physical and emotional neglect, a missing parent (due to separation, divorce, incarceration, or death), witnessing household substance abuse, violence, or mental illness, or environmental violence and more.
Developmental (or ‘Childhood’) trauma after an ACE is unidentified or misunderstood and often worsened within school systems, including the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). The US Attorney General and our Surgeon Generals called children’s exposure to violence and trauma an “epidemic”, a “crisis”, years ago.
Trauma during development is especially heinous.
Some adults normalize the pain and fear of the injured child, thinking “they’ll get over it.” Actually, it’s the opposite. Young children have fewer coping mechanisms and their immature brains are still developing. The impacts of trauma are greater on the still-developing brain.
School children deciding to take their own lives are a ‘silent’, but persistent indictment.
Trauma impacts children, learning and schools, via its laser-like effects on the physical structure of the brain.
Developmental trauma damages cognition. The specific changes to brain architecture impair children’s memory systems, their ability to think, to organize multiple priorities (“executive function”), and hence to learn, particularly literacy skills.
Next, the changes to the trauma-impacted children’s neurobiology also predispose them to hyper-vigilance and suspicion, leading them to misread social cues. Their aggressive, ‘hair trigger’ defenses are often set off by deep fear-memories outside of their explicit consciousness.
Adults’ view of students’ seemingly illogical, or oppositional behavior, is often one of shock, confusion, frustration and maybe anger. If we act on our uninformed views, then we risk re-triggering more of the child’s trauma, and even more aggression.
In the spirit of ‘zero-tolerance’, many times schools blame and punish students for logical behaviors connected to their trauma-based injuries.
Punishment can seem appropriate in the moment, but does not address the child’s injury. Instead, the data says, it feeds “the school-to-prison pipeline“.
If schools are to be guided by data, the data says 2 of 3 children experience at least one ACE: children of all incomes, all colors, all social levels, all educational levels. It is all of us.
CDC scientists found that even in beautiful, suburban San Diego about one-fourth of middle class, mostly white, college educated, working folks with medical insurance had THREE or more ACEs! Here in north Philadelphia the prevalence is almost double. The lifelong impacts are shocking and alarming.
Three or more ACEs is significant because three+ ACEs correlate with doubled risk of depression, severe obesity, drug abuse, lung disease, and liver disease. It triples the risk of alcoholism, STDs and teen pregnancy.
Three ACEs correlate with a 5X increase in attempted suicide, according to the data.
Nevertheless, most school districts do not train or fund or allocate staff to recognize and respond to the devastating impacts of developmental trauma. Three or four folks on-staff at the district, based downtown at headquarters, is a shameful, inappropriate investment in addressing the massive scourge across the city of more than two-hundred thousand school children.
School-based staff, given insufficient training and resources, can fail to connect children’s developmental trauma to social behaviors, to academic learning, to life decisions. Meanwhile, schools must fight to include in a single counselor in each school ? And so, the crisis continues.
All children in the classroom are denied equal access to their education as a result of unidentified developmental trauma, and adult ignorance and inaction.
Denied access includes students who are trauma-impacted and then the rest of our students in the same classrooms trying to learn in the midst of frequent chaos around their trauma-impacted peers.
Continuing damage to children’s cognitive functions is only the beginning: Over time, children’s self-confidence disintegrates, further dismantling their learning “results” and the district’s educational mission. Then, trauma-impacted children’s natural, aggressive defenses can skyrocket when uninformed adults miscalculate punitively. All this in context of a “Common Core” and standardized learning, standardized testing and synchronized timing, which are all in direct conflict with education equity for trauma-impacted children (and thus making school-to-school and year-to-year comparisons of isolated tests meaningless).
At this point many frustrated learners and families lose trust in their school. All the carnage above , in turn, dissolves public confidence in public education, which finally, in a ‘perfect storm’, destroys public willingness to invest in public education.
Ultimately all of us are damaged by developmental trauma, including all students’ families and the citizens of Philadelphia.
Scarce funds in public education must be re-prioritized toward system-wide, trauma-informed practice in Philadelphia and beyond, driven by a vision of equity, justice and educational process leadership.
District leaders must be held accountable for their inaction in the interim. They have clear data and strategies that can help stop further damaging trauma-impacted children.
It is time for adults to stand up and indict district leadership.
Doing nothing is unethical and morally wrong. Legal remedies await.
Children’s lives hang in the balance.
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