It is no surprise that children struggling with the effects of traumatic exposure to family violence, either as witnesses or through direct abuse, often have difficulty focusing, following rules, trusting adults and peers, and completing academic tasks.1 For some children, this difficulty can result in a failure to succeed, which can, in turn, lead to dropping out of school or engaging in disruptive behavior.
For other children, the outward signs of trauma can be less disruptive to the classroom, but nevertheless devastating to a child’s school experience. Such symptoms include perfectionism, depression, anxiety, and self-destructive or even suicidal behavior.2
The following are recommendations from the Task Force on Children Affected by Domestic Violence coordinated by the Massachusetts Advocacy Center (MAC), and supplemented by participants at the spring 2000 Symposia convened by the Massachusetts Citizens for Children (MCC) on “The Impact of Trauma on Children: Implications for Policy, Protection, and Prevention.” Comments from participants at “Helping Traumatized Children Learn,” a subsequent conference sponsored by MAC and Lesley University Center for Special Education, are also included.3
Stop the re-traumatization of children in schools. Training educators to identify the symptoms of traumatized children is a crucial starting point in developing a comprehensive school-wide approach to helping traumatized children learn. At a minimum, a training curriculum should help teachers understand that traumatized children may not be able to express their suffering in ways adults can understand.
Lacking the words to communicate their pain, these children may express feelings of vulnerability by “acting out,” becoming aggressive, or feigning disinterest in academic success because they believe they can’t succeed. Teachers must be helped to understand that the traumatic symptoms most detrimental to children’s educational experiences often do not originate in willful defiance, but in their feelings of vulnerability. With this insight, school personnel are far less likely to re-traumatize children with surface-oriented punishments such as suspension and expulsion, “dumbed-down curriculums,” and demeaning comments (“You’re just not trying.”).4
Emphasize the negative effects of publicly labeling specific children as “traumatized” or “abused.” This is critical to ensure that the experiences of maltreatment do not become the prominent feature of any child’s identity.
Teach children how to calm themselves and modulate their emotions. When children bring traumatic memories with them to school, any event (a look, the color of someone’s hair) that reminds them of their trauma can trigger behaviors that may not be appropriate in the classroom. This is a classic symptom of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mental health professionals must help educators develop techniques for calming children and helping them to modulate their emotional responses to the classroom environment, and thus, their behavior in it.
Help traumatized children learn to influence what “happens” to them. Children who come from chaotic homes often fail to learn basic notions of cause and effect.5
Prepare teachers to work with parents victimized by violence. It is critical that teacher training help teachers understand the cycle of violence and its effects on adults as well as child victims. This information may enable teachers to better partner with parents who may also be victims of violence.6
1 Carlson, E.B., et al (1997). “A Conceptual Framework for the Long-Term Psychological Effects of Traumatic Child Abuse.” Child Maltreatment, 272, 277
2 “Overcoming Childhood Adversities: Lessons Learned from Those Who Beat the Odds.” Remarks at Massachusetts Committee on Children and Youth Symposium. See also, Katz, M. (1997). On Playing a Poor Hand Well: Insight form the Lives of those Who Have Overcome Childhood Risks and Adversities. New York: W.W. Norton & Company 5-9.
3 “A State Call to Action: Working to End Child Abuse and Neglect in Massachusetts.” Massachusetts Citizens for Children – A Massachusetts KIDS COUNT Report, April 2001
4 Cole, S.F. and Gadd, M.G. (2000). “Uncovering the Roots of School Violence.” New England Law Review 34: 601-614, 609
5 Craig, S. (September 1992). “The Educational Needs of Children Living With Violence,” Phi Delta Kappan: 67-71, 68
6 Boykin-McCarthy, J. Emancipatory Learning: A Study of Teachers’ Perspective Shifts Regarding Children of Battered Women. (Doctoral Dissertation, the Fielding Institute).