Disciplining Traumatized Students Doesn't Work

After Hurricane Katrina, many public schools in New Orleans became privately run charter schools and tightened the reins on discipline, cracking down on small behavioral problems in an attempt to keep students on track. According to NPR, many schools in New Orleans will discipline students for speaking in the halls, wearing the wrong socks, or gazing out the window while a teacher speaks. But a new collective of five New Orleans schools show that disciplining traumatized students doesn't always work the way educators intend it to, whereas a trauma-informed approach can give kids the help they need most.

According to The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, students in New Orleans are an appropriate group to focus trauma-informed care on. Youth in New Orleans show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder at nearly four times the national average, and they're twice as likely to report signs of depression. More than half of them worry about violence, and with good reason: 54 percent of young people in New Orleans have had someone close to them murdered. Around 16 percent of kids in New Orleans worry about having enough food to eat and having a place to sleep at night.

Amanda Aiken, an administrator at Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep, recently told the Hechinger Report that before the school implemented a trauma-informed approach in 2015, their disciplinary methods simply didn't work on a large portion of students — about one-third of those they suspended didn't respond to harsh discipline. And schools in New Orleans were suspending many students: during a single school year five years ago, Crocker College Prep's sister charter schools (Sylvanie Williams and Cohen College Prep) suspended more than 50 percent of its students, according to The Times-Picayune.

Paulette Carter, president and CEO of the Children's Bureau of New Orleans, told NPR that a lot of the time, disciplinary measures simply didn't help children. "Generally there just was really not an understanding of how trauma impacts a child," she told NPR. "A kid who's been exposed to trauma ... that fight or flight response is much more developed and stronger."

According to the National Education Association, repeated exposure to stress and trauma can change children's brains, making it harder for them to focus or learn and gearing up its "fight or flight" instincts. Both language skills and memory can take a backseat, and their behaviors can easily become aggressive or defiant. And these changes begin early: according to the National Education Association, traumatized 5-year-olds are twice as likely to react aggressively, and three times more likely to have trouble focusing in class than a non-traumatized child.

Activists are now working to switch educators' perspectives. Instead of thinking of students as "bad," the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies suggests, consider that they might be sad, instead. Teachers in New Orleans' five-school collective are now trained to recognize subtle hints that indicate trauma, and instead of suspending kids for disengaged or reactive behavior, they send them to speak with a counselor at the school, work through issues in a group discussion, or allow struggling students to go to a wellness room for a meditative break.

“You will see kids struggling with all areas of language, word retrieval, writing… memory suffers hugely," Illinois special education teacher Kathi Ritchie told the National Education Association. "It can look like kids are shutting down, but their brain is telling them, ‘you need to be safe.’"

According to the Hechinger Report, helping kids work through their life issues at school — rather than punishing students for having them — has shown promising success: approximately 80 percent of kids with trauma in their past thrive in trauma-informed schools. Activists want to end the pipeline that shuttles kids from school to prison in struggling areas, and treating kids with trauma-informed care could be an effective way to help turn things around in a community.

The five-school collective is now taking part in a study to quantitatively track their students' successes and changes, but counselors at Crocker College Prep have already noticed a growing ability to cope in their students, according to NPR. And for those kids, that makes all the difference in the world.