Monday, May 15, 2017

Childhood Trauma and Learning

Most everyone has suffered some kind of childhood difficulty. For me, most of it was self-induced. What was it for you? Not making a team, a class bully, middle school in general, or as KASB's Mark Tallman describes, (quoting Niles from “Frazier”) the general difficulties of being “a small-boned child with superior language skills?” While these kinds of experiences can be traumatic, the concept of childhood trauma has been the subject of recent attention and research and the new information is shocking. Marcia Weseman, former middle school principal in the Blue Valley school district was at KASB recently to share some of her knowledge about the subject and it is an important one for school leaders to understand.  

I learned the importance of defining one’s terms in high school novice debate class. For our purposes, childhood trauma goes beyond those listed above. The Centers for Disease Control website has excellent information on Childhood Trauma and what can be far-reaching, long-term impacts on those affected. A good summary description can be found at http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean  

Researchers use the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey to determine an ACE Score. These experiences range from whether you were “sworn at, insulted, put down, or humiliated” at home to whether you had a parent in prison. What they have found is that children with higher ACE scores tend to experience more long-range physical and mental health issues ranging from obesity to cancer. In the short term, children are more likely to have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior, which translates into getting in trouble at school.  

I often hear people my age say things like, “if I got in trouble in school, I got it worse at home, “and “if we could just paddle kids…” The research is showing that children who suffer trauma at home need exactly the opposite at school. Getting angry and yelling at a kid who has been yelled at in his home for years is not an effective strategy. Paddling a kid who has been beaten and abused at home will not yield positive results. Giving a kid whose mom just went to prison a zero for not handing in an assignment will not improve their desire to learn.  

Some folks will resist this idea, saying spare the rod and spoil the child. We can conduct esoteric debates about society’s ills and kids lacking responsibility all day long. I once received a hateful email from a parent at another school because I wouldn’t let a wrestling team travel during a blizzard. He accused me of effeminizing the wrestlers. Those arguments have been going on for centuries.  

Local school boards are the place where esoteric and high-minded debates meet ten-year-old homeless kids. We cannot afford to debate social ills. The students we have are the best we are going to get right now. Schools and districts need to look at their policies and procedures and consider how to build resiliency in students, how to help them manage their turbulent lives so they can be productive citizens.  

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