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Homeless and Traumatized Children Increasing

November 14, 2013

Two stories from the NYTimes caught my eye today: one describing an increase in homeless children across the country and another, the Fixes Blog, discussing the need to separate trauma related behavior from the typical misconduct that occurs in schools.  The link between the two articles seemed clear to me immediately: if you are one of the 1,700,000 homeless students attending public schools you are likely to be experiencing enormous stress in your life, stress that might manifest itself in misconduct in school. Indeed, homelessness is among the “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)” identified by researchers which, if it is combined with one other adverse experience like “…witnessing domestic violence or having a parent who uses drugs or is incarcerated”, has resulted in “…emotional and behavioral difficulties that pose serious barriers to their learning”. The article goes on to note that  students who have two or more ACEs fare poorly when compared with children with no known stresses, Indeed, “… these kids are two to four times more likely to have problems with attendance, behavior, academics and health.” And it was no surprise to me that researchers found that:

…homeless students often end up clustered in high poverty and low-performing schools, and can be disproportionately hurt when low-performing schools close.” In other words, homeless children don’t end up in high-performing schools that could absorb them without being overwhelmed, and that might have a chance of actually helping them.

And what is the reformers’ solution to underperforming schools that serve a large proportion of the 1,700,000 homeless children?  Why closing them, of course! So children who have been uprooted from their homes (one ACE) are then uprooted from the schools they attend, creating another potential ACE thereby thrusting them into the danger zone for problems with attendance, behavior, academics, and health. . How does this make sense?

The Fixes blog suggests schools can address students with multiple ACEs by changing the way adults in schools serving children with trauma sensitively and compassionately.

Just as we send a powerful message about our values when we make accommodations for people with disabilities, schools send powerful messages by the way they treat children whose behavior falls outside the normal bounds. They can mete out punishment in ways that reinforce judgments and hierarchies and perpetuate crises – or respond by deepening the understanding about others and building supportive communities.

This isn’t soft-headed thinking; it’s the only approach that makes any sense.

Unfortunately this ISN’T the way we think of dealing with discipline issues in school. Notions like “zero tolerance” and “no excuses” are based on the assumption that students can control their behaviors and have developed a self-awareness both of which are notably absent from students who have experienced trauma. An elementary child who throws a tantrum and a despondent teenager who sasses a teacher when he or she feels threatened has had their self-control compromised due to external circumstances that have nothing to do with school or the “judgements and hierarchies” schools value.

As a former high school disciplinarian in the mid- to late 1970s I can recall instances where a in the course of my interview with a misbehaving student sent to my office I learned of circumstances outside of school that went a long way to explain the student’s behavior. I found that in most cases where external forces affected the students’s misbehavior that I served as a counselor more than a disciplinarian…. and there were cases where teachers in the school felt I was hard enough on the misbehavior that occurred in their classroom or the hallways. My rejoinder was that my purpose was not to punish students but rather to find a way to motivate them to behave better in the future. I assured the student and the teacher that if the behavior did not change in the future that a more severe punishment would be deserved. There were other cases where a teacher, having learned of the circumstances the student was experiencing outside of school, worked with me and the student to develop some means of allowing the student to get some breathing room if a trigger was pulled.

The bottom line from my perspective is this: school is the last chance for a child to learn how to regulate his or her behavior… and if the school’s response to misbehavior is to suspend or expel the child for misbehavior there is a missed opportunity for teaching that lifelong skill.

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