Activating Messengers for public Education (AME Power): Trauma-Informed Schools—Solutions to Trauma-Laden Environments)
Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker, Director of AME Social Action Commission
What’s the big deal, you may be asking? The big deal is that the African Methodist Episcopal Church has long proclaimed its mission of furthering the education of persons in the African Diaspora and providing access and opportunity for all who desire to be educated. We have gone further to provide educational institutions to help achieve those goals—institutions supported by the Connectional Church (26 institutions of higher learning historically, and six currently). Further, local congregations have founded, established, and operate day care centers, Headstart programs, elementary through high schools and have adopted local public schools.
Thank you, African Methodists, for all that has been done. Looking at the current state of public education, however, it is not enough. We need trauma-informed schools to handle the dilemma of educating students who arrive from trauma-laden neighborhoods, homes, and other circumstances beyond their control, e.g., foster care. Others live with secondary traumatic stress like simply being in environments that do not contribute to emotional, mental, or physical health and well-being.
According to 2009 report by the Washington State Office of Supt of Public Instruction, trauma is defined as the inability of an individual or community to respond in a healthy way, physically, emotionally, and mentally to acute or chronic stress. Let’s examine our response to random acts of violence, heightened security in public venues and homes, physical and emotional abuse of a person, systemic intervention in ways that hurt and emotionally cripple children and youth. We could add so much more examples of stress without being able to authentically describe healthy ways that we have responded to that stress. Our focus here is to be reminded that “one out of every four children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and/or behavior” according to NCTSN Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators.
What are the impacts of trauma-laden environments? What does it feel like to vulnerable young people? They feel threatened, abandoned, and lack trust. Much of their focus is on survival and not learning. More damaging is the poor brain development that may be a result.
How can we spot traumatized young people? What does it look like? The behaviors we see are poor emotional control, problems in focusing on work, withdrawal from socializing, difficulty with authority figures, and unpredictable or impulsive behavior. Too often, they self-medicate to mask the symptoms or prescribe their own path to relief.
Is it really that detrimental? How bad is it? The traumatized child is 32 times more likely to have learning and comprehension issues according to the Alliance for Children’s Rights. As a result, they are more likely to be retained at one grade level for multiple years or referred to special education classes. With very few exceptions, their grade point averages are below the norm of that school or age group.
There are many ways to infuse trauma-informed approaches into the nerve centers of our public schools and it begins with the involvement of people of faith. As people of faith who are a part of a faith group like the AME Church with a stated commitment to education for the least of these, it is important to build knowledge and communication that will move us toward solutions and problem-solving. Included in the “work out” are: 1) strategic planning by policy makers and administrations, 2) staff and faculty training, and 3) direct intervention with the traumatized students. Additionally, we could provide students with clear expectations and communication as guidance in stressful situations. The end result is not only providing coping skills but creating a culture with respect and support. The result is that all will thrive!
The Expectations Project challenges people of faith to do something! Accompanying that challenge is resources to facilitate the intervention and empower the students, parents, and all stakeholders in public education. We must take leadership in removing the criminalization of simple child-like actions that when adjudicated can derail a child’s life. We must testify that God loves every little child and we are the “face of God” extending ourselves to shield the helpless, speak for the voiceless, and help to empower the timid. We must speak truth to persons in power who fail to see the dilemmas faced by the individual child, parent, or helper.
With God and each together, we cannot fail. So let us be guided by Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” In short, God has the plan. God has sent out the call. All we have to do is to be faithful and available.