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The “Bad (Academic) Kid” and Trauma-Informed Schools

Posted on September 15, 2017

The “Bad (Academic) Kid” and Trauma-Informed Schools

As we discussed in the last post, unresolved trauma can make it difficult for a child to control their behaviors in a school setting. These struggles too often lead to the student getting the label of the “bad kid.” Unless a remarkable teacher comes into the child’s life, this label can follow a child throughout their school years creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where teachers expect students to struggle and often act in ways that set the child up to experience additional setbacks.

Unfortunately, behavioral issues are not the only effects trauma has on a student’s ability to succeed in school. Over development of the limbic systems, including the fear and emotional based amygdala, resulting from traumatic experiences hinders the development of brain areas associated with strategic thinking and problem-solving (pre-frontal cortex) and language development (Boca’s area). To sum up a great deal of sophisticated research, the neurobiological results of trauma makes it very difficult for victims of the trauma to thrive academically.

Students struggling with trauma are more likely to be in special education, 2.5 times more likely to fail a grade, struggle with concentration, have difficulty with memory creation and recall, and will struggle to follow directions correctly (Cole et al., 2009). While many students get the “bad kid” label due to their behaviors, their academic struggles just reinforces this perception. Many classroom teachers do not have the time, attention, or paraprofessional support to effectively manage these students’ behavior much less provide them with the individualized instructional attention they need to overcome the biological effects of their traumatic experience.

For too many of these students, their academic struggles manifest in a destructive type of perfectionism. Because of traumatic experiences and due to consistent stress from their environment thinking and behavior becomes very rigid and even young children will consciously or unconsciously attempt to gain some control over their situation. Every student craves to experience success and earn their teachers’ approval.

For too many students with trauma histories, they experience numerous academic failures early on in their school years. Eventually, many internalize that they are “slow,” “below grade average,” or “stupid.” They realize (maybe just unconsciously) that no matter how hard they try, they will always fall short of their peers and fail to meet the expectations of their teachers. The only control they have left is whether or not they put in the effort or even show up.

The consequences of not doing homework might be psychologically more tolerable than giving one’s all and hearing it is not sufficient. Being truant might lead to legal consequences but is better than the constant sense that you are a failure. Unfortunately, this mindset of failure can follow a person throughout their life and result in struggles in employment leading to severe economic consequences.

Across the country, I hear stories from teachers about their struggles with these students. I listen to the pain in their voice, especially when I teach them about how traumatic experiences are causing these academic and behavior issues. I get the question “how can I help these kids when I’m trying to run a classroom with 25 or 30 students and get no additional support?”

There are some answers to this question. Introducing mindfulness in the classroom, creating a safe and trusting classroom environment, and other trauma-informed classroom strategies. Unfortunately, all of these approaches will struggle to truly assist these students if the teacher cannot adequately address behavior and poor academic achievement.

The real answer involves increases resources to schools so there is a fit between the demands of the classroom and the necessary capacity to meet those demands. A mix of paraprofessional support, mental health support, social work support and resources for the family will change the life of so many of these students. Once again we are faced with a clear choice: we can continue to build prisons and homeless shelters, or we can invest in our teachers and children and get them the resources they need during the critical developmental stages.

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