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What Hurricane Sandy is Teaching Us About Students Under Stress

This week as the East Coast cleans up after Hurricane Sandy, we are hearing from teachers how they are responding to the trauma and stress their students are bringing to class.

From Brooklyn Heights Montessori teacher Launa Schweizer, we learn how her students are coping.

As the day wore on, I discovered that the children who had spent the week without power, who were displaced by rising water, or who had seen significant property damage, had little ability to do schoolwork. They craved the comfort only their friends could provide, but actual focused learning was impossible. They arrived without their homework, despite having been out of school for a full week. Despite my repeated reminders, they kept getting up and wandering around the classroom.
I'll admit it: my patience and enthusiasm began to fray.
Until I realized: those children didn't need my lessons. Not right away. Instead, they needed school as a refuge. Refuge from dark stairways and flashlights. Refuge from schlepping wet cardboard boxes out of basements. Refuge from a week of cold dinners and no showers. Our school was dry, warm, well-lighted and normal, and they needed simply to be there.
Ms Schweizer is attuned to the emotional state of her students, and recognizes what a huge impact this storm has had on their lives. Does this sound familiar? Reading this, I could not help but think about the students whose lives are in turmoil not because of any phenomenon of weather, but because of the stormy conditions that accompany living in poverty. In the US, 44% of all children live in low income families, and 21% live below the federal poverty level, which is set at $22,350 a year. Think about your own family's income this year, and what it would take for you to get by on that little.


According to Feeding America, 20% or more of the child population in 36 states and D.C. lived in food insecure households in 2010.

According to this report from the USA Today, "One in 45 children in the USA -- 1.6 million children -- were living on the street, in homeless shelters or motels, or doubled up with other families last year..." This represents a 33% increase over the past three years. One child in ten has experienced foreclosure across the nation, and that number is even higher in some areas.

A 2010 study from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that:


"...more than half of all prisoners in the U.S., or 1.2 million inmates, are parents of children under the age of 18. Fathers make up the vast majority of this total, 1.1 million, while the rest are mothers (120,000).

About 40% of all incarcerated fathers are black, and one out of nine black children (11.4%) in the country has a parent in prison or jail.

2.7 million children have a parent behind bars--1 in every 28 children (3.6%) has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of these children's parents were incarcerated for non-violent offenses.
Previous research has shown that children with fathers who have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than other children to be expelled or suspended from school (23% compared with 4%).

A little-noticed set of studies from Stanford University has tracked the impact of trauma on children's mental development.

This 2007 article in the San Francisco Chronicle reported that:

As many as one-third of children living in our country's violent urban neighborhoods have PTSD, according to recent research and the country's top child trauma experts - nearly twice the rate reported for troops returning from war zones in Iraq.

According to a social worker who works with these students,

PTSD can look a lot like attention-deficit disorder, with the lack of concentration, poor grades and inability to sit still.

The article concludes,

...it almost guarantees that these students - often African American or Latino and low income - won't do as well on standardized tests as their wealthier, whiter and safer peers.

A study released last year carried this news:

In communities where there is violence, where children are exposed to events such as shootings in their neighborhoods, kids experience a constant environmental threat," said senior author Victor Carrion, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. "Contrary to some people's belief, these children don't get used to trauma. These events remain stressful and impact children's physiology.

These students are, of course, not evenly distributed among our schools. Some schools in well-to-do neighborhoods have only a handful of the hungry, homeless and traumatized. Schools in poor neighborhoods, however, have a large share, and teachers must cope every day with students who are experiencing life-shaking traumas in their homes.

I am not trying to minimize the trauma students have experienced as a result of seeing an act of nature wash away their homes. It is real and should be responded to humanely. It affects large numbers of students in the community and cannot be ignored. It causes me to wonder, however, how it is that we expect teachers to ignore the reality of poverty and trauma that so many of our students experience on a daily basis? How must this feel for the students who are experiencing these traumas? In the case of a hurricane there is a shared experience. Everyone was affected at once. But the storms of poverty are more selective. They hit families one at a time, and there is no urgent appeal to rescue those thrown on the street. The schools are supposed to stop making excuses and get the students focused on their next big test, and on going to college. Tough to do when your belly is empty.

I learned during my dialogue with the Gates Foundation that when people like me share these sorts of statistics, some believe we are suggesting children in poverty cannot learn. That is NOT my purpose here. To be crystal clear, here is why I think this is important:

  1. We must be careful when attempting to evaluate teachers, principals or schools based on the test scores of their students. The effects of poverty have direct impacts on student achievement beyond their teacher's control.
  2. All students can learn, but they need teachers capable of responding to their needs, as did Ms. Schweizer. When teachers are forced to follow scripted curriculum or focus narrowly on test preparation, they do not have the time or autonomy to meet their students where they are. This contributes to students becoming alienated and disengaging from school.
  3. When we hear of charter schools with strict discipline and rigid academic standards, and their success with children living in poverty, understand that we do not begrudge them success, but we question the cost of these policies. These schools usually have high attrition rates for students -- the obvious implication is that students who manifest symptoms of trauma or are otherwise not making it academically are being shifted back to the public schools.
  4. We need to respond to the conditions our students face outside of school as well as within. The Center for Mental Health in Schools has offered a set of learning supports that are crucial for student success.

The bottom line is that schools need broader support if we expect them to actually improve the lives of students living in poverty. Simply applying ever-more pressure on teachers to raise test scores winds up doing more harm than good for all involved.

What do you think? Does Hurricane Sandy have some lessons to teach us about the effects of trauma on students?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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