Part I: The Implications of Trauma & Student Misbehavior
In this three part series we will explore the issues of complex trauma, the effect on emotional and cognitive development of young people, and interventions at the classroom and system level that can mitigate negative outcomes.
Theodore Roosevelt's adage rings true: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." We have known for a long time that developing positive relationships in the classroom, incorporating student engagement strategies, and an emphasis on social-emotional learning can positively impact students' academic success. But before we jump into proactive strategies that help build a stronger, more compassionate relationship between educator and student, it's important for us to understand the underlying factors that contribute to students "acting out."
In my experience, plus the 30 years my colleagues have worked in public schools, we have learned that student misbehavior and "acting out" are often indicators of trauma. Poverty, sexual abuse, domestic violence, parental drug use, incarceration, or mental illness are just some of the issues that contribute to traumatic experiences that have a profound impact on a child's developing brain and body. Through our team's professional experiences, and research supports our findings, we have found that children living in poor neighborhoods are more likely to suffer traumatic incidents, such as witnessing or being the victims of violence. They also struggle with pernicious daily stressors, including food or housing insecurity, living in overcrowded households with overworked or underemployed, and stressed-out parents.
All of these issues can affect a child's brain development, making it difficult for them to succeed in school, and contribute to chronic stress that host cognitive effects such as trouble with attention, concentration, memory and creativity. When trauma occurs as a series of experiences where reactions overlap it adds complexity to the response, also known as "complex trauma." This leads to increasingly pervasive and harmful effects on functioning for students, including cognitive, academic and social and emotional functioning.
This brings us back to student misbehavior or "acting out," as complex trauma often induces behaviors such as aggression, disproportionate reactiveness, impulsivity, distractibility, or withdrawal and avoidance that disrupt the learning environment and frequently lead to exclusionary school discipline measures, such as suspension and expulsion, or absence from school. Often student's behavior is a reaction to repeated exposure to stress and trauma beyond their control. These barriers have tragically predictive consequences for students. In fact, academic research has extensively documented the link between trauma and poor academic outcomes, including failure to reach proficiency, failure to graduate from high school, and contributing to the 'school to prison pipeline.'
While childhood traumatic experiences can have lifelong consequences, supporting research has shown that positive adult relationships and the development of resiliency in children can mitigate the harmful effects to children's health and development. Teachers cannot change the fact that students are affected by trauma outside of the classroom, but we can adjust how we respond to them inside our classrooms, to foster a compassionate and responsive learning environment. Teachers, and the teacher-student relationship, are the most critical factors in improving education outcomes for students. Moreover, I can attest to the fact that the right interventions including creating compassionate classrooms and developing resiliency in students makes a difference, and it starts with creating trauma-informed classrooms, schools, and communities.
About the Author: Lara Kain is the senior director of Transform Schools. She has fostered the use of LAEP's holistic school reform model in LAEP's Partner Schools Initiative consisting of 10 pilot schools, two comprehensive high schools and three middle schools located in low-income areas of Los Angeles. Prior to LAEP, she worked for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, providing expert leadership and technical support for low-achieving schools and districts, including Title I and School Improvement Grants. She is a leader in training teachers and schools on trauma sensitivity and is part of the remedy team for the class-action lawsuit against Compton Unified School District. She also worked for the University of Wisconsin-Madison and as a teacher and administrator of small public high schools with values and practices that are similar to those of LAEP's Humanitas and community schools.