September 20 — 11:00 pm, 2006

Recognizing the signs of trauma in children

Trouble in school, trouble at home, and trouble in the community

In Philadelphia, we are fortunate not to be burdened by stressful events such as illness from contaminated drinking water, earthquakes, and other natural disasters or famine. Yet our children are at risk for trauma and traumatic life events.

Whether it be abandonment, accidents in the home or community, bullying issues, child abuse, death of a family member or friend, divorce, domestic violence or discord, homelessness, neglect, robbery, shootings, or sudden and unexpected loss, our children witness or experience events that alter their sense of self and security.

Trauma establishes a new possibility for children of what can happen in the world, and they become preoccupied with danger and vulnerability. When a traumatic event occurs, the child’s life compass is altered. Instead of pointing “due north,” the normal territory of everyday life is radically changed. Navigating through this new territory can be a source of anxiety and fear for children.

For many of our children, the biggest sources of trauma are either at home or in the community. Living with violent parents or family members, navigating the mean streets of our communities, or witnessing violence can leave devastating scars which can take years to heal.

Ongoing trauma has the ability to impair brain development in young children and adversely impact school performance. Unrecognized, trauma can be a formula for school failure, marginal literacy, and emotional instability resulting in a loss of childhood.

When teachers are ill-prepared to recognize the warning signs of trauma such as negative classroom behavior or inconsistent academic performance, the end result is often suspension or expulsion from school. In the most severe instances, the child stops attending school altogether.

Education and early intervention are vital in the fight to break the cycle of poor attendance and underachieving. In order to respond effectively to traumatized children, school teachers and administrators must learn about the causes and effects of trauma in children. This is a heavy burden for the School District of Philadelphia, the seventh-largest school district in the nation, as it struggles to provide a safe and welcoming environment for learning in addition to numerous nonacademic services to children and the community.

Teachers cannot, nor should they, bear this burden alone. Many of them are not prepared to focus on the individual and unique warning signs of trauma and abuse. They need the support of mental health professionals who can work with them and each school to devise schoolwide trauma plans, as well as provide emotional counseling about the invisible pain and suffering of their students.

There is no easy solution to this growing problem, but schools and communities must come together to address this emerging public health crisis.

In fairness, the School District is working hard to deal with a mountain of social ills that find their way to their doorsteps every morning. The Offices of Specialized Services and School Climate and Safety work to ensure the health, wellness and safety of students and staff. They are on the front lines responding to school violence, shootings, suicide attempts and other traumatic events affecting children.

Philadelphia’s child-serving systems must work together with parents, as well as the School District, to collaborate and coordinate our efforts to minimize the harmful effects of child trauma. Such efforts allow the child to have a safe and supportive home and school environment.

There are a number of interventions needed to prevent or mitigate stress reactions, identify and treat emotional health challenges, address inadequate coping behaviors, and facilitate psychotherapy referrals for the child and, when necessary, the family. In addition, school trauma/crisis interventions have to be instituted to address poor school attendance and learning problems. Re-establishing social support systems is a good strategy to address the needs of children surviving trauma.

We must work toward the day when educators are able to say to children who have experienced intense or insidious trauma that we see you, we feel your pain, and we can help you cope with life’s obstacles and, in the face of tough odds, succeed academically. We must work toward the day when parents and caregivers are equipped with the knowledge to recognize the harmful impact of trauma on young people, muster the courage to intervene, and take a stand to save a life.

Most important, we must find ways to teach our children how to recover in the aftermath of trauma and empower them to get the help necessary in order to put their lives “back together again.”

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