Quality instruction begins with teachers connecting with students. What happens before the bell rings can be just as important.
By Dr. Dale G. Caldwell
The tiny first-grader climbed up the arm of the teacher and started choking her with all of his strength. Hearing the ruckus, the principal ran down the hall to the classroom to pull the student off the teacher, and the first grader started choking her. Tragically, similar incidents are occurring every day in urban schools across the United States. These classroom distractions and their root causes are one of the main reasons I believe there is a 30-point academic achievement gap on standardized tests between suburban and urban students.
Tragically, violence, suffering, and abuse have become an unfortunate way of life for students living in major cities like Atlanta, Camden, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, Oakland, and New York. In Trenton, a school I formerly led has many students who regularly hear gunshots in their neighborhoods. Sometimes they are threatened at gun or knifepoint or deal with the brutal murder of a family member or friend. These students move from house to house or car to car for shelter at night. Sometimes they don’t eat dinner. Some of these students experience unthinkable abuse that causes even more significant trauma to their young lives. The result: young students are prime candidates for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Many programs are treating PTSD for war veterans. Unfortunately, there are not enough programs effectively treating this ailment in public school students and their parents. Public education policy ignores the sad reality that many urban students have great difficulty learning because of the trauma they suffer from home, which triggers a form of PTSD caused by violence, hunger, homelessness, and abuse in the communities where they live.
The traumatic experiences that many urban students face can directly affect the parts of the brain that control emotions and memory. Studies such as the groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE Study) research on 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patients indicate that traumatic childhood experiences are a fundamental reason why individuals do poorly in school and suffer later in life. Extensive research has suggested that the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory forming, organizing and storing, and the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions such as anger, fear, and pleasure, are susceptible to stress and trauma.
If a child is exposed to prolonged trauma (which is frequently called “negative neuroinfluence” or “NNI”) the amygdala and hippocampus change in a way that negatively affects a student’s emotional stability, memory, and ability to learn. Current special education programs do not provide the social-emotional support systems necessary to address the neurological problems of many urban students. These students, therefore, continue to do poorly in class and distract other students from learning. The good news is that “positive neuroinfluence” or “PNI” can reverse the changes to the brain caused by severe trauma.
Studies have shown PNI programs help students improve their ability to manage emotions. Self-esteem can help students significantly increase their academic proficiency. Programs like Northwestern University’s Project Harmony music program, where students learn to play instruments, change the brain in a way that makes it easier for students experiencing NNI to learn. According to Hugh Knowles, professor of neurobiology and physiology and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern, “musical training has a positive effect on biological processes important for auditory learning, memory and hearing speech, which appears to translate into better language learning results.”
PNI programs providing trauma-informed care have become community initiatives throughout the country. Colleges like Bryn Mawr and Portland State University have developed certificate programs to educate teachers to teach students who have experienced NNI effectively. Community programs like Echo Parenting and Education in California are teaching parents empathy-based parenting methods to help their traumatized children build emotional intelligence. Also, programs like the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative are advocating for policies that provide support for students who are struggling in school because of trauma-related issues.
Unfortunately, current public policy does not provide funding for the specialized educational support that students experiencing NNI need to succeed in school. The academic achievement gap will likely widen unless policymakers support the expansion of PNI programs designed to address the social, emotional, and learning needs of students who have experienced a significant trauma in their early lives.