Editorial: Schools should address student trauma

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

The reasons behind a student’s poor performance in school tend to extend far beyond the classroom — they are usually found in the home.

Emotional trauma caused by a poor home life affects countless students across the country — something school districts in Allegheny County, like Mt. Lebanon and Highlands School District, have begun to recognize.

These schools are now training their teachers to “identify students who may be showing signs of trauma, such as acting out, withdrawing or displaying poor hygiene,” and to provide said students with “appropriate supports such as counseling or access to resources such as food, clothing or school supplies,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Monday.

The programs are attempting to facilitate a supportive learning environment where students can feel safe, separate themselves from the pressures of home and learn to manage their trauma in a secure zone. As John O’Connell, director of student support at Pittsburgh Public Schools told the Post-Gazette, “Our business is to get to the root of the problem and how it affects them in the classroom.”

The idea is to look into the child’s home life, and his or her emotional state, when considering things like test performance, behavior and retention.

The emphasis these schools are now placing on trauma is an essential strategy in improving education, simply because trauma can directly affect a student’s performance in the classroom. Situations like domestic violence, drug abuse, sexual abuse, poverty and death or illness in the family can all lead to lower test scores and a lack of motivation in class.

Specifically, trauma causes anxiety that can affect the brain development of children, reducing their core neurological functions like memory, language and ability to learn, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

This is extremely problematic for our education system, as this does not affect just a few children. Rather, it affects nearly half of all U.S. elementary students, according to a 2014 study released by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Therefore, all schools need to adequately address this very real obstacle in education by implementing programs that identify students who experience trauma and get them the help they need to learn.

Teri Hower, who teaches second grade at Mary C. Howse Elementary School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, said her school introduced an emotional support program that is similar to the programs utilized in the Allegheny County schools. It also instructs teachers on how to identify students who experience trauma at home. Then, the school provides said students with counseling and other school resources to help them cope with it.

Hower said the value the program has added to the education of her students has been tremendous, specifically when it comes to the classroom setting.

“In some cases, we spend more time with these kids than their parents do, and some of us don’t know how to look for [trauma],” Hower said.

Consequently, such programs have “huge positive aspects,” Hower explained.

“Sometimes there are kids who require more help than I can give them, but when I have the resources to turn to, it can help the overall classroom environment,” she said.

As demonstrated by the efforts of Allegheny schools and by Hower’s experiences, emotional support programs that target trauma are not only helpful, but are necessary in facilitating a productive education for all students.

Therefore, we call on policymakers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to look toward implementing statewide emotional training programs for teachers and resources for them to deal with student trauma.

Rather than blindly throwing money at today’s education issues by increasing funding, these programs can specifically target an essential facet that prevents many students from achieving academic success.

Emotional support programs can be the key to keeping students motivated and in school. As Hower explained, “It’s life-changing for these kids.”