Programs to Address Childhood Trauma Pay Off Over a Lifetime

While academic success is critically important to a student’s lifelong achievement, other factors can have a significant impact on a child’s ability to succeed. Schools have an important role to play in addressing these issues.

Childhood traumaConsiderable research has found that traumatic experiences can influence a child’s academic achievement and wellness. Among the most significant studies is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, seminal research on the impact of childhood trauma on adult behavior and health. Through physical examinations and surveys of 17,000 people, ACE researchers learned powerful truths about the number of people affected by adverse childhood experiences and the extent to which those experiences resonate throughout people’s lives.

ACE researchers found that traumatic experiences, including abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction, are hugely prevalent, with approximately two-thirds of the study participants reporting at least one. These findings began to make clear the connections between childhood experiences, impairments of social, emotional, and cognitive development, and the adoption of high-risk behaviors that have serious costs to both individuals and society at large. Although the ACE study examined adult behavior, it suggests that we should think more about early intervention for children who experience traumatic stress and work harder to mitigate the resulting poor outcomes.

In 2010, researchers in Spokane, Washington, found that not only was trauma common in kid’s lives, it was the main reason students missed school or had disciplinary problems. In fact, childhood trauma was the second highest predictor of academic failure among the 2,100 children studied. Children in the Spokane study who had three or more adverse experiences had six times the rate of behavioral problems, five times the rate of severe attendance problems, and three times the rate of academic failure than students with no known trauma.  

Children develop many of the social, emotional, and cognitive skills that will shape them through adulthood in the place where they spend much of their day—at school. Providing trauma-informed teaching strategies and other interventions to teachers, counselors, and others school-based professionals can make a big difference in the patterns of behavior that manifest from adverse childhood experiences.

Programs and services to address childhood trauma are being developed on several fronts. At the state level, Massachusetts recently enacted the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, which supports preventive programs, as well as services and interventions for children needing more intensive supports. Although the state education department develops the overall framework for addressing child well-being, individual schools are encouraged to create action plans that address their specific needs. The Massachusetts law also focuses on the role the school plays in the community to create a cohesive environment for children and their families.

The federal government has also taken steps to address childhood trauma. For example, the U.S. Department of Education Skills for Success program provides funding that supports programs to develop non-cognitive skills in middle-grade students. Because Congress is currently considering reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now is also a critical opportunity to address support and funding at the federal level for programs to address childhood trauma.

The Shriver Center strongly supports legislative and advocacy efforts that acknowledge and address the impact of trauma on children and communities. With funding and support for programs that are comprehensive and structured, yet flexible enough to address the needs of individual children, all children can be given an opportunity to succeed in school and thrive in later life.

Dana Lieb contributed to this blog post. 

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