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Is a child just ‘acting out’ or suffering from trauma and toxic stress? Educators must learn the difference

Is a child just ‘acting out’ or suffering from trauma and toxic stress? Educators must learn the difference

[Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images]

A decade ago, New Orleans restarted its public school system after Hurricane Katrina amid much pain and controversy. All teachers were fired and a new, charter-based system began. Along with bold change came a bold promise: New schools could disrupt the cycle of poverty for New Orleans’ children. While New Orleans’ overall economy has improved since the storm and flood of 2005, the number of children living in poverty stands at 39 percent, among the highest rates in the nation.

Consider the everyday stresses of children living in poverty: not enough food to eat, a lack of stable, safe housing, the threat of gun violence that plagues poor neighborhoods, picking up on the stress of adults facing job insecurity or without a living wage. We are learning more about how these “toxic stress” factors affect children’s brain development and limit their ability to learn, not to mention their basic ability to show up to school every day.

A student continually runs out of class. A social worker learns he has recently seen a dead body, and has known people killed by gun violence. He says he feels his own death by violence is inevitable, and doesn’t see the point of being in school.

A student always falls asleep in class. She catches a bus at 5:30 a.m. each day. Bus service is down 65 percent since Katrina, and the charter system means students are often assigned to far-flung schools, so they leave home before dawn and return after dinner.

A child is not wearing the required public school uniform, and is disciplined for this. It turns out his family was evicted, and he has no clean clothes. New Orleans was recently ranked the second worst housing market for renters, based on the rent-to-income ratio, and public housing is greatly reduced since Katrina.

These are but a few of the anecdotes we have heard.

Yet the “no excuses” model adopted by many of the city’s charter schools does not always consider the context of children’s lives in the classroom. In fact, it’s designed to do the opposite by enforcing “high expectations” no matter a child’s home life. This style can indeed boost achievement for some students, who can benefit from increased motivation and structure. But for many children who face chaos in their homes and neighborhoods, and whose brains and bodies are constantly reacting to that chaos, the rigidity of the “no excuses” classroom can be a barrier, and can increase stress rather than alleviate it.

We have met these children as reporters in New Orleans. Living in the city when Katrina hit and then covering the aftermath, Eve Troeh met families in which children missed many months of classes and who struggled to find any form of stability. The number of New Orleans youth showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is nearly four times the national average — a rate usually seen in war veterans, says a psychiatrist with the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies. Many families still battle unaddressed trauma from losing homes, family members, jobs and community after Hurricane Katrina. And they’re now living in a city with fewer services and safety nets than before the storm.

And, we have seen signs that educators are beginning to understand the complex role schools play in the lives and health of children living in poverty. Last summer, Mallory Falk covered the many education conferences and reports that marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and aimed to measure schools’ success in sweeping reforms. She noticed a shift in how school leaders spoke about reform. They touted improved test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment. But they also acknowledged that schools must address student trauma and stress.

How can schools do that? This is what our 2016 National Fellowship project aims to find out.

We will spend time with teachers as they learn about the symptoms of trauma and toxic stress, and how to recognize these conditions in their students.

We will explore a trauma-informed curriculum being implemented at one of New Orleans’ elementary schools, and get to know the life of a student moving through this system.

We will examine school-based solutions that can help families by providing wraparound services, like health care and food assistance, to ease the toxic stress in students’ lives.

Our project will explore both the promises and challenges of trauma-informed education, in the city that’s become a national model for education reform. How can schools make academic gains while also better meeting the holistic needs of their most vulnerable students?


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It would be so clarify and truly accurate and a meaningful act of resistance to be specific about the root cause of the trauma written about in this article.

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Those involved in this project seem to be setting off with a hypothesis that stress is toxic, a most popular hypothesis that has created our nation of anxious, depressed people. Stress beckons us to adapt. It encourages us to support others who appear in greater need. It makes us uncomfortable when we are failing to 'measure up.' The 'toxic' hypothesis compels us to treat stress-linked behaviors, usually via medication, rather than determining whether or not our feelings are rational or not, whether we can or should adapt our behavior in order to increase our comfort or become even more successful using alternative behaviors. Creativity and adaptability are what we should be seeking for children in our schools, NOT comfort where there really is no comfort to be gained.

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Howard Miller. If you look at the work being done by Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD at the Child Trauma Academy you will find this article is accurate. The environment directly contributes to the development of the child's brain starting at birth. If they live in a dysfunctional environment that is physically, emotionally and psychologically unhealthy it triggers the alarm response known as fight or flight. By the time a child reaches school age this is deeply rooted in their brain. As they continue to live in this unhealthy and harmful environment they are re-traumatized again and again and their stress truly becomes "toxic." So what we see as acting out are adaptive responses to that toxic stress.


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.


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