Note: the point is not that traumatized children can't learn. But the effects of trauma create yet another barrier and challenge (on top of other basics like HUNGER) that too many inner-city children, in particular, have to overcome.
How can we expect teachers to respond to the deep needs of these suffering children in overcrowded classrooms? How can we hope to solve the "education" problem if we don't address the effects of trauma?
What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
“An anxiety disorder associated with serious traumatic events and characterized by such symptoms as survivor guilt, reliving the trauma in dreams, numbness and lack of involvement with reality, or recurrent thoughts and images.”
Rates of PTSD are much higher in children and adolescents recruited from at-risk samples. The rates of PTSD in these at-risk children and adolescents vary from 3 to 100%. For example, studies have shown that as many as 100% of children who witness a parental homicide or sexual assault develop PTSD. Similarly, 90% of sexually abused children, 77% of children exposed to a school shooting, and 35% of urban youth exposed to community violence develop PTSD.
In one study of children in foster care, 64% who had experienced sexual abuse had PTSD, and 42% who had experienced physical abuse fulfilled the PTSD criteria. Moreover, 18% of the children who were not abused also met PTSD criteria, presumably because they had witnessed violence. . . . .
In addition to the symptoms of numbing, hyperarousal, and recollections of the event that adults experience, children often become unable to participate in the normal developmental experiences of childhood, such as visiting friends and participating in after-school activities. In addition, the quality of schoolwork is likely to be significantly compromised. The compromised ability to participate in the normal developmental experiences of childhood has far-ranging impact, even when and if the initial underlying symptoms that are the basis for diagnosing PTSD are resolved.
Furthermore, a host of emotional and behavioral problems frequently arise as a result of PTSD and are not part of the criteria for categorical diagnosis. These include disruptive behavior disorders, eating disorders, sexual acting out, other risk-taking activities, depression, the full range of anxiety disorders, dissociation, mood lability, violence, and difficulty concentrating.
This new understanding of the way childhood trauma affects memory and the brain has important implications for public health policy. One example would be the case of inner-city children who have witnessed violent crimes in their neighborhoods and families. If this kind of stress can cause damage to brain areas involved in learning and memory, it would put these children at a serious academic disadvantage in ways and for reasons that programs such as Head Start may be unable to address. Studies confirm this: in war-torn
Effects on Inner-city Adolescent Girls, in Particular:
Most inner-city adolescent girls have been exposed to some kind of trauma and most have experienced psychological distress as a result, according to a study by researchers at the National Center for PTSD and their colleagues. Many of these girls go on to develop full or partial post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a disorder that can result in poor quality of life for inner-city youth. . . .
- 85.5% witnessed community violence
- 55.5% witnessed shootings
- 38.9% witnessed stabbings
- 13.3% witnessed homicides
- 4.5% were shot or stabbed themselves
- 36% used weapons
- 24% had been arrested
- 20% had spent time in jail
- 67.7% heard about friend or family homicide
- 32% witnessed physical abuse at home
- 16% experienced physical abuse at home
- 11% experienced sexual abuse at home
- 30% experienced sexual abuse outside of home
- 10% had been raped
- 13% could be diagnosed with current PTSD
- 11% could be diagnosed with partial PTSD
The author of the
By age seven, 74 percent of the children in the study had heard gunfire and 13 percent had witnessed a shooting or stabbing in their own home. 60 percent reported that they worry some or much of the time that they may get killed or die; 20 percent sometimes wished that they were dead; 19 percent had seen a dead body outside their homes.
Even more alarming, children exposed to violence suffered from a variety of personal problems and performed poorly in school.
"This fits," according to Dr. Bremner, "into the context of a range of studies -- both in animals and humans -- showing that stress can have a deleterious effect on brain systems involved in memory. This kind of damage may well underlie difficulties with new learning and cognition that cause poor academic performance in these children." It may also mean that helping these children lead better lives may not be as simple as removing them from the stressful environment.
Effects on the Brain More Broadly: An Explanation of Why PTSD is So Difficult to Treat
Findings show how trauma disables normal brain functioning and highlight deficits in basic mechanisms of learning and memory. Recent findings also show that a common neurological basis explains altered emotional responses in veterans with PTSD, and that fear learning caused by trauma is different from other types and may explain why it is more difficult to treat.