“We ignore the emotional needs of young children at our peril.”
―Bruce D. Perry, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered
This chapter and the accompanying recommended readings and activities are designed to assist educators to:
- Identify the severity of need in many schools reflected in behavioral disruptions and poor academic performance
- Discover the impact of struggling students on all school stakeholders
- Increase curiosity regarding how to understand the nature of the problem and appropriate school-based responses
This chapter focuses on the impact of unmet student emotional and physical needs in public schools. It includes the following key concepts foundational to trauma-informed competencies:
- Identification of the problem, in all of its complexities
- Awareness of the scope of the problem
- Insight into the impact on all stakeholders
In this chapter we present alarming information on what is happening in many public schools. We share perceptions and experiences of teachers and the concerns they have expressed in relationship to their students, and discuss the impact of unmet student needs on all school stakeholders. The challenge in schools is not just about dysregulated students, but about educators, teachers and community members at their wits end, searching for a way forward.
I (Brenda) have a cohort of students every year who are pursuing a master’s degree in teaching. Their program includes extended placement in a school for their student teaching. My students regularly share their experiences in the classroom, which gives us a chance to debrief. What follows is from one of those debrief sessions.
A teacher candidate was placed in a third-grade classroom in a rural school district. She came to see me after teaching all day. She was tired and emotionally drained. As she sat in my office and began to tell me about a particular student who displayed significant behavioral issues, she began to cry. “The student comes to school angry every single morning. And I mean really angry. It is becoming impossible to get him to settle down, pay attention, and focus on academics. Just this morning he completely lost control, ripped up the worksheets and threw them on the floor.” This child was clearly hurting, and my student teacher was distraught, feeling like she was failing before she even earned her teaching license.
Does this classroom interaction sound familiar to you? Students enter the classroom with varying readiness and ability levels, learning styles, learning needs, and behavioral issues, amid increased class sizes. Enormous pressure has been placed on teachers and students to perform on standardized exams. Parents and communities hold teachers accountable for the outcome of those exams. Yet, parents and communities do not know how classrooms have changed, or what obstacles to achievement teachers face.
Classroom management has become increasingly more difficult. Examples of dysregulated children and youth abound, leaving teachers and other school personnel deeply concerned. To get a clear picture of what educators and schools are experiencing, we conducted a survey of 205 teachers, administrators, and instructional assistants (Morton & Berardi, 2018). The survey was created to explore the needs of students and classroom challenges, asking for perceptions and experiences, and comparing those to student needs and challenges 3 to 5 years ago. For context, of those that responded to the survey, 43% were P-12 classroom teachers, 26% classified staff, 12% certified district specialists, 9% classified classroom staff, and 10% held administrative leadership positions in the district. Overall, the average survey participant had been in the district for over 9 years, with more than 35 serving in the district for 20 or more years. They were almost evenly split between elementary and secondary roles. We point out the demographics of these participants because their experience working with children and youth is significant, and their years in their various roles provided them with history and perspective on the needs of students in today’s classroom.
The survey asked if they had noticed any change in student needs over the last 3 to 5 years. They responded overwhelmingly with a “yes.” When they were asked to describe the change they noticed in their students, the most common responses were:
- Challenging classroom behaviors
- Mental health challenges
- Homelessness/unstable housing
- Inability to control emotions
- Difficulty focusing
- Declining academic achievement and classroom performance
- More students requiring SPED services to support behavioral challenges
These responses were organized into the following four categories: (a) behavioral issues (defined as disrespect, aggression, and negative attention seeking behaviors); (b) academic challenges; (c) stress and anxiety; and (d) mental health challenges (Morton & Berardi, 2018).
The survey revealed classroom behavior as the greatest challenge classroom teachers were experiencing. Teachers reported student dispositions as “students behaving aggressively,” “disruptive behavior that impacts the learning environment,” “noncompliance,” “physical aggression,” and “defiance.” One teacher shared “screaming, yelling, and throwing things” as the biggest challenge within their classroom. Another shared, “One student spends only about 20% of the day on task. The rest of the time she is running back in forth in my classroom and sometimes out of it. She can become easily upset by other students and will just start screaming. Another student gets upset if you ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do or to correct a mistake and will start wailing. Some days he can handle some correction; other days he cries loudly in class throughout the day.” An elementary teacher summed it up by saying, “Some children are quick to lose their temper and throw items at other students. We are losing too much teaching time dealing with behaviors” (Morton & Berardi, 2018, p. 202).
Teachers are worried about the academic achievement of their students. They shared that this concern has increased over the last 3 to 5 years. One shared, “There seems to be some high-functioning kids or kids that get it, but then there are just kids below or way below grade level. The ‘middle’ or ‘average’ student seems to have disappeared!” A pre-K teacher shared, “The academics are more rigorous now, so they are expected to do more and some of them are not necessarily ready for it. I think they need more support.” Another said, “It seems the number of special education and behavior students is increasing and what they are supposed to be able to do academically is becoming more challenging.” An elementary teacher summed up her frustration by saying, “There are too many behavior issues that interfere with education and the academic needs of the students are often secondary.”
Stress and Anxiety
Anxiety and increased stress levels have been noted by teachers as another area of concern. A high school teacher said, “Students seem to have become more anxious and stressed.” One teacher wondered if this was because many are “trying to fit so many pieces of curriculum into a day—I think it’s too stressful and intense for the students. Many of the students need a more holistic approach and the day is incredibly chopped up with pull-outs [students scheduled for additional support and thus pulled from the classroom]. This makes it challenging to create a family within the classroom, something many of the students desperately need.” Another wondered about the impact of high-stakes testing on students. They shared, “I think high stakes assessment stress has affected our attempted suicide rate.”
Mental Health Challenges
Teachers and administrators are seeing an increase in the mental health needs of their students. A high school teacher said, “I see a lot more students who present as mentally ill or unstable. Students who shut down, or have outbursts unrelated to the material we are studying.” One teacher identified “uncontrollable anger” manifesting in their classroom. Several survey respondents voiced the need for licensed mental health providers in each school building in the district, and for the creation of in-school services to meet needs. Others pointed to the need for increased planning time in order to thoughtfully make adjustments to the learning environment that could help meet the emotional needs of their students.
Unfortunately, these situations and experiences shared by teachers and administrators have become more frequent. In the last couple of years, teachers and administrators have taken to social media to voice their frustration with the dispositions of students and parents. These posts have included pictures of torn-up textbooks and novels, classrooms that have been left in complete disarray, bulletin boards destroyed, school technology discarded, vandalism of desks and other school furniture, and injury to teachers. This cry for support was echoed in a report from our own Oregon Education Association (OEA). Witnessing an increase in classroom management issues and listening to their membership, they created a task force to explore what was happening in schools. Testimony in 2017 to the State Board of Education alerted the governor to an impending crisis. The OEA (2019) published a report summarizing testimony from more than 2,000 educators across the state, and from community parents, educational professionals, and legislators at community forums.
At the forums and in a survey, OEA asked the same four questions:
- In your classroom, school, or district, what are barriers to ensuring all students can learn in a safe, inclusive, and welcoming environment?
- What changes could be made to overcome those barriers in your classroom, school, or district?
- What support do you need or does your classroom, school or district need to implement those ideas?
- What innovations or successes do you know about that could inform changes across Oregon? (https://www.oregoned.org/standing-up-for-you/disrupted-learning).
What OEA learned mirrored our findings from the 205 teachers. Survey and forum respondents shared extreme classroom behaviors that included verbal abuse, physical abuse between students, using classroom items as weapons, and destroying property as significant barriers to proving the high-quality education teachers desired to deliver (OEA, 2019, p. 6). In fact, these behaviors have become so common in classrooms, that they are rarely acknowledged as an event. One reason named for these increased behaviors is the increase in class size. OEA found that approximately 45% of all classes have 26 or more students, with some classes having as many as 56 students (OEA, 2019). As class sizes have increased, student social-emotional needs have become more severe, and school funding has decreased, teachers report having significantly fewer classroom supports, including “counseling staff, special education teachers, school psychologists, school nurses and other specialized support personnel” (OEA, 2019, p. 7).
What is happening in classrooms is not just impacting those exhibiting disrupted learning behaviors. The impact can be seen in classmates, teachers, special education referrals, and loss of community confidence in the public school system.
When a student displays emotional outbursts or physical aggression in the classroom, the entire classroom suffers. Student bystanders find their learning interrupted as the teacher is immediately needed to bring calm, safety, and stability to a child who is out of control. The negative interaction creates a chaotic environment that requires time to recover, resulting in additional lost instruction time. Children are also emotionally impacted by the event that took place. Witnessing the event can leave children afraid to engage in any kind of relationship with the student who exhibited those behaviors, making it difficult, at best, for the teacher to create a welcoming environment for all and leaving emotionally vulnerable children in social isolation. Children in classrooms where emotional and/or physical outbursts are common may view school or their classroom as an unsafe environment, therefore impacting academic and social growth for all.
Teachers are also suffering both physically and mentally. Our local news channel gathered a group of teachers to discuss behavioral issues in their classrooms and schools. During the interview teachers shared that they or a colleague had been physically injured as a result of out-of-control student behaviors. The reporter contacted the largest school districts in the state and learned that in the last two years, one district reported 1,789 teacher injuries with 72% of those injuries caused by their students. A second district reported 634 teacher injuries with 65% caused by their students. One district started tracking these incidents this year, with 551 teacher injuries, 404 of which were caused by a student (Severance, Tierney, & Johnson, 2019).
Teachers are also experiencing secondary trauma, resulting in mental and physical exhaustion and early retirement from the profession.
The majority of survey respondents indicated the need for more training as their teacher preparation programs inadequately prepared them for the significant mental health challenges of their students. Teachers are trained to create engaging lessons focused on raising the academic abilities of their students. They are led to believe that if they master tried and true behavioral management strategies, they will have a well-ordered classroom. As one teacher stated, “Yay for me getting an A in my classroom management course; it means nothing due to what is happening in classrooms today.” Now, educators serve as surrogate parents, safety officers, and caseworkers in overcrowded, underfunded settings.
Special Education Referrals
Recently, we were invited to meet with a group of superintendents, principals, teachers, and school counselors from several different school districts in Oregon. Before the meeting began, a conversation between a couple of people around the coffee pot turned into a larger group discussion about the significant jump in student referrals for special education testing, prompted by out-of-control behavioral issues in the classroom. As teachers face students with an inability to self-regulate, and without additional classroom support, they are desperate for answers, strategies, and solutions to support this group of learners. Not knowing what else to do, they are referring students for special education testing at an alarming rate. Special education teachers are stretched beyond their limits with the influx of referrals.
The impact these events have on the community are multifaceted. First, parents are looking to school administration to respond to these significant disruptions in their children’s classrooms. As administrators struggle to find effective and appropriate actions, the families and community begin to lose confidence. Parents begin to question their children’s safety in the school. Pressure can mount with parents calling for stricter accountability measures, believing that poor behavior just needs to be corrected.
But, for the trauma-impacted student, it is just not that clear-cut. Their misbehavior is not simply disrespect, but a manifestation of significant cognitive distortions and limitations resulting most often from the unmitigated stress and trauma that characterizes their life thus far. It leads to self- and other-doubt, resulting in anger, hurt, and often hopelessness. Behavioral modification programs based on reward and punishment mean nothing to them, and only serve to further feelings of inadequacy and shame (Craig, 2016; Ristuccia, 2013). Without the help and support they need, our typical interventions might actually be making the situation worse, increasing the likelihood of a cascading set of struggles, including the student choosing to leave school entirely.
The dropout process is not immediate; it does not happen overnight. It is a slow process of disengagement, frustration, suspensions, and other acts of exclusion. However, without interventions, failure and dropout rates will increase. Young adults without a high school diploma will earn less than $40,000 a year. This represents a $18,800 yearly gap between their salary and the salary of those who earned a bachelor’s degree (National Center for Education Statistics, N.D.). The unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma is 13%, versus 3% for those with a bachelor’s degree (National Center for Education Statistics, N.D.). Those who drop out face tremendous obstacles in meeting their basic needs and often rely on social programs to bridge that gap.
We’ve known for a long time that our public schools face significant challenges, as we ask why our students struggle so much, and how to fix it. The No Child Left Behind era brought a focus on standardized testing. Schools became focused on a single score. As scores took center stage, teachers faced scrutiny from the communities they served. Calls for merit pay for teachers and report cards for schools put teachers under the microscope. Basically, for a multitude of cultural reasons, lawmakers decided that teachers—and the education system—were the cause of the problem. And the fix was to put more pressure on teachers to show results of a job properly done via test scores.
Parents want their children to be academically and socially successful, and rightfully so. However, the challenging conditions in which teachers are operating are caused by forces largely out of their control. And, more often than not, community members are unaware of the enormous daily challenges teachers face. In short, we need to first re-ask and answer why students struggle to thrive in the school environment.
The findings from our survey of 205 teachers, the report by the OEA, and our work with schools confirm that unmitigated stress and trauma are wreaking havoc in our schools. The academic and social impact of traumatic histories has become a social justice imperative. Darling-Hammond and Cook-Harvey (2018) call for a return to focusing on the “whole child” and not just academics; they define the whole-child approach as one that includes, “access to nutritious food, health care, and social supports; secure relationships; educative and restorative disciplinary practices; and learning opportunities that are designed to challenge and engage students while supporting their motivation and self-confidence to preserve and succeed (p. 2). The whole-child concept is not new, but took a backseat to student test scores and standardized exams during the era of No Child Left Behind. Now, however, awareness that at least 50% of students in classrooms have been impacted by trauma calls for a renewed focus.
Our teachers, administrators, students, and non-teaching school support personnel are experiencing significant challenges as they seek to create a safe, engaging environment where all students can learn. OEA (2019) said, “Students and educators should feel safe and secure while at school. The disrupted learning environment crisis puts these core values at risk” (p. 3). This bleak state of our schools calls for immediate action: an overhaul of our education system where all people feel safe, seen, heard, and can flourish.
A Look Forward
In this chapter we discussed the state of public schools. We unpacked the perceptions and experiences of teachers who are deeply concerned about the behavioral, academic, and mental health challenges of their students, which continue to increase in severity each year. And, we have observed that some of our responses on a broad cultural level have perhaps been meant well, but suggest that we do not fully understand the scope of the problem.
TISP proposes that given the severity of need experienced by today’s students and teachers, we need to re-envision how we train our educators, how we interact with students, their families, and each other, and how we create safe and effective learning environments. In the remaining chapters in Section I of this text, we will explore the above questions—why are our classrooms in crisis, and what can be done about it—by applying advances in neurobiology, development, and traumatology research informing the conceptual elements of Trauma-Informed School Practices. In the remaining sections, we will identify the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required by educators to implement these concepts in a manner that responds to the needs of all students.
Resources for Further Reading
- DoSomething.org. A grassroots organization providing statistics on education in the United States.
- Classrooms in Crisis. One state’s process assessing the needs of students and educators.
- Child Mind Institute. This organization provides rich resources for parents and educators.