I recently moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and a recent study by the Economic Analysis and Research Network claims that the state has the highest income gap in the country. 70% of students at my school qualify for the free lunch. They specifically suffer from conditions of poverty and the social implications that come with that—including high levels of “toxic stress.” In fact this toxic stress is slowly being recognized in the New Haven Public School system. In May, 2016, I attended a film titled
Resilience: the Biology of Stress and Science of Hope,
where the mayor, the director of a local mental health clinic, a principal, and local third graders either discussed or demonstrated how trauma is being treated in New Haven.
The notion that resonated with me for my classroom is that children carry stress, and they require support systems to build resilience, and this is how learning is possible.
My current students often and casually speak about domestic and community violence. They feel safe enough to discuss past situations in their life. From these casual conversations, and feeling entrusted with my student’s narratives, I naturally became interested in the ACES study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) initiated by Dr. Felitti and Dr. Anda. These doctors surveyed 17,500 adults about their history of exposure to what they called [ACES]. There are 10 potential experiences that humans may experience as children, and through a survey those may be tallied. Those categories are: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, parental mental illness, substance dependence, incarceration, parental separation or divorce, and domestic violence. One point is given for each of these lived experiences. The higher the ACES score the more serious the trauma and the more severe the health issues. From these experiences physical health and mental issues arise and this obviously cannot be disconnected from their educational environment. They found that ACES are very common, and that health outcomes were linked. The increased health risks include: obesity, alcohol and drug use, depression, suicide attempts, diabetes, cancer, strokes, sexually transmitted diseases, and even broken bones.
The brain’s development is deeply affected in children, the children I teach and the adults they will become, so I am invested in creating a haven in my classroom where literature is a tool for healing.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris discusses how adverse childhood experiences affected children of color in Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco in her TED talk, “How childhood trauma affects health across lifetimes.” She explains, “A lot of kids were being referred to me for ADHD…but when I actually did a thorough history and physical what I found was that for most of my patients I couldn’t make a diagnoses of ADHD. Most of the kids that I was seeing had experienced such severe trauma, that it felt like something else was going on. Somehow I was missing something important.”
Teaching what most call “urban” youth—perhaps a code for children of color, or impoverished children—takes more than just knowing the curriculum and building solid relationships. I believe that a safe space, where meaningful learning happens, is the responsibility of the teacher to help the child build resilience or hope. This concept was also fostered through the writings of a child psychologist.
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook
by Dr. Bruce D. Perry furthered my belief that the learning in my 8
grade English classroom must be meaningful enough to help my students gain literary tools and access; consequently; this can mean that we build a safe space where they can build their resilience and learn about themselves through literature.