By Jan Lewis
Schools have a responsibility to address the mental health needs of students. Given the prevalence of mental disorders in children— especially disorders due to traumatic experiences — and the manner in which such disorders interfere with learning, attention to mental health needs is an important aspect of improving academic success.
Research in neurobiology over the past decade confirms that adverse early childhood experiences alter brain structures and chemistry. Young children who lack consistent care-giving (due to parental mental illness, drug use, incarceration) and those who experience trauma related to violence in their homes or neighborhoods often have difficulty forming attachments, regulating their emotions and attending to instruction.
Students who have been traumatized by exposure to violence or abuse, but have not received help in processing their experiences, are vulnerable to variety of stimuli (loud noises, raised voices) that remind them of the trauma. These often trigger reactions that are disruptive to other students. A recent study documented that classroom behavior of children exposed to domestic violence decreased their peers’ reading and math scores and increased misbehavior in the classroom.
National surveys of American youth indicate that up to 34 percent have experienced at least one traumatic event. A recent large study of low-income families found high rates of trauma-related post traumatic stress disorder in children aged 5 to 18. Unaddressed trauma often sets children on a downward spiral in which trauma-linked behaviors are addressed in punitive rather than supportive ways. The numbers tell the story: an estimated 75 to 93 percent of youth entering the juvenile justice system have experienced some degree of trauma.
Recognizing the negative impact of trauma on academic success, the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs launched an innovative pilot project in January 2010 to help address the needs of traumatized students in selected Front Range schools. The END Violence project provided training and consultation to 28 schools selected out of 57 applicants.
During my 18 months of work in five Pueblo schools I found that a majority of teachers in selected schools welcomed training in recognizing and responding to behaviors of traumatized students, noting that such information was not part of their teacher preparation. Seasoned teachers, counselors and administrators in lower-performing (turnaround) schools affirmed that the emotional needs of students must be acknowledged and addressed simultaneously with academics in order to achieve higher levels of student success. The availability of school-based therapists was a boon for both students and teachers, and should be sustained.
Incorporating training on student mental health was challenging in turnaround schools where many professional development hours were devoted to district- and state-mandated topics. A district-wide — or better yet, statewide — commitment to creating trauma-sensitive schools would help insure that all school personnel receive the training needed to recognize and respond appropriately to traumatized students. Additionally, teachers need support in dealing with secondary trauma or compassion fatigue arising from work with needy children.
Those who have watched “Waiting for Superman” or read “Whatever It Takes” are aware that the future of our country depends on transforming education — especially in schools serving poor neighborhoods, where the accumulated costs of high dropout and incarceration rates continue to drain public coffers. Such transformation, according to the experts, involves (among other things) cradle to college support for high risk/poor families, whose numbers have increased since the 1980s.
Pueblo, along with many other communities in Colorado, has embraced two evidence-based programs that provide support to parents of young children: the Nurse-Family Partnership (for parents of children 0-2) and Incredible Years (for parents and teachers of children 3-8). We must strengthen and sustain these programs. Parents of older children also need support, especially as children entering the teen years are increasingly exposed to drug use/abuse, bullying and dating violence. Safe Dates is an evidence-based curriculum recommended for middle schools.
Without intervention, mental and emotional disorders can cause distress and disability that last for decades.
Mental health care lags behind physical health care in investment, quality, access and political will. But we can and must change this reality for the sake of our children and their futures.
Jan Lewis is a psychiatric/mental health nurse specialist who worked with the University of Colorado’s END Violence Project in selected Pueblo schools from January 2010 to June 2011. She previously served as statewide mental health consultant for the Nurse-Family Partnership and in various roles with the American Psychiatric Association.