“The point closest to where an explosion occurs” is the definition of ground zero. It might not be what one would consider a way to define a school, but in today’s world where there is a newly coined phrase of “Complex Prolonged Traumatic Stress Disorder” (CPTSD) for our students, it appears to be an accurate analogy.
Recently, I heard an amazing keynote by Dr. Jeff Duncan-Adrade. He shared with us about this concept that children today are often growing up in situations where they are experiencing prolonged traumatic stress. While a reasonable amount of stress is normal and healthy, prolonged stress becomes toxic and damaging to the body of an adult, much less the developing body and brain of a child. He referred to studies that show that children with prolonged stress, especially those from poverty, often experience symptoms similar to that of soldiers returning from combat.
While the thought of this comparison was completely overwhelming, I also experienced a bit of relief in terminology to explain phenomena that I deal with almost daily. It is as if I am battling unknown demons in some of my students. I use every weapon I have in hopes of freeing them from invisible oppressors that consume their thoughts and actions to liberate their minds to create room to learn. Having family in the military and serving as first responders, this is not a statement that I take lightly. However when you look, many children these days, coupled with their underdeveloped coping mechanisms, it is easier to understand why schools are facing more and more students with trauma-induced symptoms.
In a recent battle, I received a call from a substitute in the building. She was concerned that a student was being defiant and disrupting the learning of others. I was surprised to find it was a student who had struggled in the previous year, but settled down into learning and had put forth some fantastic effort this year.
As I entered the classroom, all of the students were seated and working except the one. He was walking around the classroom bouncing a ball. When I entered, I motioned for him to come to me and held out my hand for the ball. Luckily, he handed the ball to me and came voluntarily. During the next 45 minutes, he sat and rocked in my office. I could see in his eyes that he had withdrawn deep into the depths of his mind.
I knew that to get him back, I had to get him using words. After some time to rock in silence, I began asking some questions. Initially, our conversation involved me asking questions and him staring past me. Gradually this evolved into nodding, then repeating sentences when given two choices. Eventually, we collaborated to find a solution that allowed him to do some of his learning in another classroom. I was so proud of him being willing to accept doing some work in another class even though he knew the work would be more difficult and require more effort on his part.
I was so relieved that we had found a solution and that learning for everyone could resume. Unfortunately, later that day, this same student was escorted to the office. Someone had contacted a different administrator and reported that “he wasn’t where he was supposed to be.” It had been such a busy day, I hadn’t had a chance to let my assistant principal know the situation, and now the student had been given a consequence for doing what he and I had arranged.
This incident is where the physical conflict began. Kicking. Hitting. Trying to leave the building. All communication lost once again. The student felt betrayed, and he was no longer going to listen to anyone much less speak with them. As I sat with this student, I couldn’t help but reflect on the words of the keynote from the week before. Kids in crisis expect you to give up on them. They expect you to disappoint them. That is what they have known. I did the only thing I could think of at this point. I apologized.
Now this student looked at me like I was crazy as I explained to him why I was sorry and how miscommunication had resulted in him getting in trouble even though he was doing what he had agreed to do. I asked him to forgive me, and he looked at me with an even more perplexed expression. I explained that when someone does wrong and hurts someone, even if they didn’t mean to, the person who did the wrong must apologize. But the next step is the person who was hurt to forgive them. I asked again if he would forgive me and he responded “yes.” My student was back.
I think the reason this story is critical is because we have to acknowledge what schools face. Stories like these are more and more common with children today. I wouldn’t take back the time spent on this incident because I believe valuable lessons were learned by all. Students who witnessed our interactions saw adults show compassion to a child in crisis. The child in crisis felt the unconditional support of adults who were not going to give up on him no matter what. He saw me, the principal, take accountability for my own actions and seek to make the situation right. De-escalation was achieved without casualties.
As a result of this incident, I thought even more about why schools and communities may be facing increased numbers of these incidents. Children in crisis are occurring in all types of schools, public and private, highly affluent and high poverty, inner-city, suburban and rural. Personally, I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that even though our country has been considered a “great melting pot” of diversity, it has historically been composed of homogenous communities. As groups came to this country, they settled with their families and people who shared the same backgrounds, values, and cultures. Children raised with the support of extended families were well grounded in community expectations. Children attended schools where the other kids were likely raised very similarly to themselves and taught by teachers with by teachers with ideas much like their parents.
As we entered the digital age, everything changed. Families spread out across the country connected only by technology. Neighborhoods became more like “tossed salad” with people from different cultures maintaining their original values rather than “melting” together. Families raising children in isolation put high demands on parents. Children today live in a Rated R world, exposed to adult language, violence, and adult situations, not just on television and video games, but in the face-to-face interactions in the world. In addition to stresses of today’s world with poverty, work demands, increases of traumatic illnesses, our children no longer have a “world of innocence” and are faced with incredible stress at a very young age that is carried into schools with them every day.
While schools may be “ground zero” for some of the social explosions going on in the world around us, I would propose that schools have the potential to become a community’s “Epicenter of Hope.” Public education is an excellent source to bring a diverse community together. Rather than watering down individual cultures, they can promote value for each others’ differences. We can teach our children how to appreciate each other and treat each one another with respect. Schools can provide support to families who need someone to stand in partnership with them in raising their children in the absence of extended family. We can connect families in crisis with resources and model support rather than judgment.
At the same time, we also have to acknowledge that creating a culture of support takes time. Rather than launching additional attacks against teachers, our legislators, media, and the general public need to provide backup to educators on the front line. Providing quality learning in the midst of some of the mental battles our students face can tick valuable instructional minutes off the clock while we ensure we meet students’ most basic needs to prepare them for learning. Satisfying these needs is something that we must do if we want to prevent further deterioration of our society. Unfortunately, success in filling these voids is not measured on state or federal accountability systems, even though it must occur before the things that are measured can take place. Teachers need more tools and training to fight the enemies our children face. The battle for our children’s future is real and it will take everyone together to achieve victory.
Below are some good resources for Educators:
How to Help a Traumatized Child in the Classroom
Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators