Recently, I had the tremendous opportunity to sit on a panel at The University of Indianapolis. The panel was for school leaders to discuss trauma in schools and how we deal with it as principals. I was able to share some of the amazing work we are doing at my school to combat student trauma, and how we are working to ensure it does not impede their learning. Throughout the hour-long discussion, I could not help but to leave with a question, “What should come first when educating a child dealing with trauma, their social development or their academics?”
We all know many children deal with trauma at such an early age. Some children have experienced things in their life that many grown adults do not have to capacity deal with. The trauma these students are dealing with impacts them in more ways than we can imagine. Many school-age children are dealing with neglect, abuse, homelessness, and violent crimes which have affected their social development, their behavioral development, and their learning in school.
As a school leader, I struggle with the area to attack first, the trauma or the academics. It is much easier when you have a child only in kindergarten or first grade because their academic journey has just begun. For those children, you should absolutely attend to their social development and help them cope and manage the trauma have faced or are facing.
It becomes a lot more complicated once you have a student in the upper grades. I might have a student who has experienced trauma, but the student is also three to four grade levels behind in reading. I want to deal with the emotional scars caused by the trauma, but the student has some serious academic concerns that must be addressed immediately. The student has already fallen behind, and time cannot be wasted. The state does not give a pass for students dealing with trauma on their accountability matrix. The state exam does not provide them with a pass for the trauma. When resources are thin in the building and you a large population of students who have faced trauma, it is hard to know what steps to take. Many would say the academics must take a backseat because students will not be able to learn if they cannot stay in the classroom or they are dealing with other situations outside of school that takes their attention away.
If you focus on the trauma first and allow the academics to take a backseat, how do you as a school manage and support that student when you lack the manpower and or resources for a behavioral therapist or school counselor? How can you expect teachers who were not trained in their undergraduate programs or in their transition programs to deal with students with trauma?
The system is broken in many cases. The schools that need the supports cannot get the support to help those students. The teacher preparation programs are not developing teachers to deal with these particular issues. The teachers who shout to the highest mountain they want to teach in urban school settings do not take the necessary steps to understand how to support students with trauma. They say they work in an urban school and teach students that are less fortunate but do not take seriously the work that goes into it. Then, you also have the politician who hands down legislation and has never stepped foot in a school. They expect schools to be measured equally, yet the resources are not equitable.
I left that panel with more questions than answers. I left unsure if my approach to ensure these students that leave my school are better academically first than when they came. I hope when they get older, they have the academic capacity to graduate high school, graduate college, and get a job that will make their adult life a lot better than their childhood. Hopefully, as an adult, they can get the help they need that they could not afford as a child. I believe by sending them into the world prepared academically that life will be better. I see it far more difficult to send an adult into the world where the school failed them along with their home life failing them. Then we will have adults in the world dealing with trauma from their childhood along with the stress of being an adult.
I do not know if this approach of academics before trauma is effective. I guess time will tell or show me how I can do both with the cards I am dealt as a school leader.