Your Schools

In North Carolina we talk about race and poverty in education. But what about trauma?

James Ford, a former CMS teacher and N.C. teacher of the year, is leading a Public School Forum project on helping schools cope with children’s trauma.
James Ford, a former CMS teacher and N.C. teacher of the year, is leading a Public School Forum project on helping schools cope with children’s trauma.

What if a child who disrupts class and tunes out teachers is traumatized, rather than defiant?

“Too often, teachers and school leaders respond to misbehavior by asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?,’ when instead they should be asking, ‘What happened to you?,’ ” says a new report from the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

The Raleigh-based forum is a nonpartisan research and advocacy group created by political, education and business leaders from around the state. “Expanding Educational Opportunity in North Carolina” is the result of a yearlong study of the biggest barriers to quality education for all students.

Problems like poverty and racism, highlighted in the report, are well known and thoroughly discussed, even if solutions remain elusive. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is working on a student assignment plan that promotes socioeconomic diversity, a strategy endorsed by the forum report. Many employees have done training to recognize and counteract racial biases, and the school board is reviewing racial disparities in suspension for young children.

Researchers have long been familiar with the lasting effects of exposure to violence, neglect and family turmoil on children. Now people who are serious about public policy are taking an increased interest in how childhood trauma shapes education and public safety.

“You can’t legislate the home. You can’t control how kids come to you. You do have a responsibility to respond to them in the condition they come,” said James Ford, a Charlotte-based Public Schools Forum staffer. He’s working with CMS to create pilot elementary schools where everyone is trained to support traumatized children.

This summer brought a new book by Paul Tough, an education writer known for his books on strategies for helping children of poverty excel in school. “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why” explains why traumatized children often respond poorly to traditional school discipline and instruction.

Early trauma reshapes the brain’s response to stress, leaving some children in a near-constant state of “fight or flight.”

“Talking back and acting up in class are, at least in part, symptoms of a child’s inability to control impulses, de-escalate confrontations, and manage anger and other strong feelings – the whole stew of self-regulation issues that can usually be traced to impaired executive-function development in early childhood,” Tough writes.

Both the Public School Forum report and Tough’s book outline ways that schools can help such children feel safe and learn to manage their emotions. Nothing suggests it’s easy to shift children from a struggle for survival to a state where they can focus on learning, grades and exams.

But not to try is negligent, says Ford, a former Garinger High teacher and North Carolina teacher of the year. And the state constitution mandates giving all children “a sound basic education,” regardless of the challenges they bring.

Ford urges readers of the forum report to think about the ways race, poverty and trauma intersect, especially in schools where students who face multiple disadvantages are clustered. Proposed changes encompass early childhood education, support from mental health services, student assignment policies, discipline and the way North Carolina rates schools.

Ford is leading a new Safe and Supportive Schools Initiative, working with CMS and five other districts to train educators on dealing with the aftermath of trauma. And the forum will create a new North Carolina Center for Educational Opportunity to push for “innovative programs and proposed state and local policies.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms