Acknowledging the everyday trauma in students’ lives

We focus on high-profile events but ignore daily reality in low-income neighborhoods

HIGH-PROFILE ACTS of violence in schools have, rightly, received our attention – and the headlines. However, there is a deeper story: pervasive trauma experienced by too many inner-city youth, often deemed routine, which is ultimately ignored.

There is a disproportionate response by the media, policymakers, and the public after a school shooting. While Parkland and Santa Fe High School deserve our attention, we cannot continue to ignore that students living in low-income neighborhoods experience similar trauma on a regular basis but never see their issues debated during prime time. Public attention and school resources need to be proportionally and equally allocated for the trauma that so many of our students quietly experience.

Dealing with trauma in schools has become one of the most pervasive issues for educators and, as such, has become the main advocacy issue for members of Educators for Excellence-Boston, a nonprofit that champions teacher input on education policy. According to a report by Massachusetts Advocates for Children, trauma is the response to a negative external event or series of events – such as homelessness, family incarceration, and witnessing violence – not the event itself.

Trauma weakens a person’s ability to cope and disrupts brain development. For a child or young person in the classroom, their ability to focus on learning is hindered. For many, that means withdrawal or acting out in ways that lead to disruptions or suspensions. Only when met with adequate mental health staffing and support are these issues revealed and, eventually, overcome.

Students enter their classrooms with innate strength, resiliency, and a desire to learn and grow. However, for many, their will to learn can be overwhelmed by such upheaval. In order for students to feel safe and supported, teachers are taking extra measures, from mentoring to helping students’ families gain access to community resources. And yet, despite best intentions and intensely difficult work, extra efforts are not enough for students coping with trauma.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students per counselor. Massachusetts has nearly twice that ratio, at 423 students per counselor. In Boston, the counselor-to-student ratio is even higher, with one counselor per 1,272 students. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one psychologist for every 700 students and it is currently one per 981 in the state. More counselors and psychologists would be a first step in addressing this issue. For an even bigger impact, teachers themselves need to be trained and informed.

Over 90 percent of teachers surveyed by Educators for Excellent-Boston reported that student trauma is a challenge at their schools. Yet 70 percent said they do not have training to tackle this issue and just over half said they do not have adequate staffing to address it.

Teachers want to learn how to better serve their students experiencing trauma, but they do not have access to consistent and quality professional development in this area. We recommend the Boston Public Schools implement research-based, district-wide standards that outline what educators ought to know and do to foster trauma-informed schools.

As an example of best practices, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction provides educators with self-evaluation tools and checklists to assess whether their practices are trauma-informed. Furthermore, trainings support teachers’ ongoing development. Boston teachers would benefit from centralized resources and training opportunities to best support students with trauma.

The ultimate goal is to create trauma-informed schools with the proper mental health support staff, as well as provide training for all adults, including administrators, teachers, aides and security. Students would be provided resources to both understand and cope with stress, and responsibility is shared among students and staff to create a culture of open communication, trust, and respect to ensure students’ ability to succeed in the classroom.

Meet the Author

Brandy Fluker-Oakley

Executive Director, Educators for Excellence-Boston
Meet the Author

Rosalinda Midence

Guest Contributor, Boston Day & Evening Academy
Safe and supportive school environments help break the cycle of trauma. Educators working together with their students are well positioned to design and lead the creation of policies that protect our most vulnerable and support their academic achievement. As the school year comes to an end, that doesn’t mean our students’ struggles go on summer vacation. Let us resolve to listen to our teachers, give them a seat at the table, and let their issues be heard and addressed.

Brandy Fluker-Oakley is the executive director of Educators for Excellence-Boston. Rosalinda Midence is a community field coordinator at Boston Day and Evening Academy and has over 20 years of experience working as an educator at Boston Public Schools.