November 13, 2013, 11:45 am
Schools That Separate the Child From the Trauma
By DAVID BORNSTEIN
Recently, I reported on the damaging effects that prolonged stress can have on young children who lack adequate protection from adults. Over the past 15 years, researchers have learned that highly stressful — and potentially traumatic — childhood experiences are more prevalent than previously understood. Now scientists are shedding light on the mechanisms by which they change the brain and body. These insights have far-reaching implications for schools, where it’s still standard practice to punish children for misbehavior that they often do not know how to control. This is comparable to punishing a child for having a seizure; it adds to the suffering and makes matters worse.
Thankfully, some places are getting smarter. “The hot spots in education are Massachusetts and Washington State,” explains Jane Stevens, a health and science journalist who edits ACES Too High, an excellent website containing a wealth of information about “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) and the effects of stress and trauma on children. “Educators understand that the behavior of children who act out is not willful or defiant, but is in fact a normal response to toxic stress. And the way to help children is to create an environment in which they feel safe and can build resilience.”
This is not a small issue in education. A great many students come to school with emotional and behavioral difficulties that pose serious barriers to their learning. In a study (pdf) of 2,100 elementary students in 10 schools in Spokane, Wash., for example, researchers from Washington State University found that more than 20 percent had two or more ACEs (experiences that include having been homeless, witnessing domestic violence or having a parent who uses drugs or is incarcerated). Compared with children with no known stresses, these kids are two to four times more likely to have problems with attendance,...