Trauma in children refers to an event a child may describe as scary, dangerous, or life-threatening; this event could happen to them or someone they know. Children who are affected by trauma typically feel overwhelmed. Sometimes they feel helpless because there isn’t anything they can do about what happened. Children who experience trauma come from various backgrounds. It should also be noted that not all trauma in children is overwhelming or life-threatening. Something that is traumatic for one child might not be traumatic for another child.
As educators, we look at the trauma of our students when they come to school, but have we ever considered that trauma in children does not always come from home but can occur during school? A particular student comes to mind when I think about trauma happening during school. He started out as an outstanding student. He never got in trouble, and he earned good grades. Every time I saw him, he was happy and smiling. Then a shift happened, and he began to act differently. The smile the staff all grew to love seemed to appear few and far between. When I would see him, he was often disengaged and doodling instead of being engaged in the lesson. He began to sit by himself at lunch. Interactions with his classmates decreased and were more argumentative. He was starting to get suspended more and was a frequent visitor to the dean’s office.
I met with his mother and asked about any changes that may have happened in the house. Mom couldn’t recall any. It was the opposite. She mentioned that she put him in sports and said he enjoyed it and had met some new friends. So, what caused a shift in a student that seemed to be going through something when he was at school? Why would this honor roll student suddenly morph into someone different when he walks through the school doors? Then it hit me; it was the school. The school caused trauma.
We are always so quick to point the finger at a child’s home life and outside circumstances, but the school environment could be the source of trauma. Somehow more school settings have been a source of the trauma. Schools staff must be on high alert regarding bullying. Bullying can come in many forms, and it can be hard to pinpoint if the school staff does not pay attention to it. Bullying is trauma that can impact a child’s life, and the damage can sometimes be hard to overturn.
A poor educational environment can cause trauma. If the school is out of control or the classroom is out of control, this can be a traumatic experience for a child. The child can see school not as a place of learning but a place of chaos, especially if they come from a household where there is no chaos. What about the child that suffers trauma because they attend a school where the teacher is verbally abusive and cruel? At the end of last year, there was just a story about a teacher in Virginia who called a student the n-word. In the statement released from the school, it was noted that other children who weren’t called the word may have been impacted.
School can cause trauma by awakening a traumatic experience in a child’s life. One of my teachers told me about an outburst one of the students had in class. The class was discussing a story they were reading, and the topic of abuse surfaced. The teacher asked the students to write about abuse, and that hit a nerve in a student. There can be assignments and activities that force children to discuss or even write about or traumatizing experiences. Also though the intention was not to rehash a traumatic experience, it does anyway. That is why teachers and schools must know their students.
What about the child that goes to school every day and the school does nothing to support their individual needs? This can be the child that is exceptionally gifted and attends a school where they aren’t challenged and are bored out of their mind. It could also be the student where he/she has a specific disability and receive little to no support for their disability. These students sit in class and are forced to learn from a curriculum they cannot academically access.
Let’s not lose sight of the trauma many students face from inside the school walls because trauma is not always caused in a child’s home.