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Reading, Writing, and Traumatic Stress: Helping Kids Cope During the School Year

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor

There are mountains of data about education and academic performance of the nation’s school children. Government agencies like the National Center on Education Statistics and nonprofit organizations such as Students First monitor and report on state proficiency exam passage rates, class size, percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, and a host of other measurements. Groups like Marian Wright Edelman Children’s Defense Fund raise awareness about child poverty and inequities that affect a student’s educational experience. But more needs to be said and done about the toll traumatic stress is taking on black students and what can be done to help them.

Research has pointed out for many years the negative experiences that black children endure relative to family structure, community and domestic violence, and abuse and neglect but if the statistics are viewed as factual realities in the lives of millions of children trying to slog through daily lessons on addition, the French Revolution,  or rules of punctuation, a more detailed picture of the enormous stress they face, and a more urgent call emerge to provide resources and interventions for these students.

What does the stress profile of black students look like, and how pervasive is the problem?

First, what is traumatic stress? The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) describes it as stress that results from intense events that threaten or cause harm to the physical or emotional wellbeing, and the effects of which interfere with daily life and functioning. This type of stress is distinguished from normal stress a child might experience when taking a test or competing in an athletic event. Common events that trigger traumatic stress are: sexual or physical abuse, physical assault, catastrophic illness or injury, and accidents.

According to 2013 Census Bureau data, there are approximately 12.4 million black school-age children in the United States*, about 6.3 million males and 6.1 million females. Data regarding black youth and the incidence of common traumatic events in their lives reveals a stunning prevalence that almost defies belief:

·        A study by the social justice group Black Women’s Blueprint reported that 60% of black girls have been sexually abused by their 18th birthday; this is school age population. That represents 3.6 million black girls. A national study with a more representative sample showed that 25% of black girls have been sexually abused while of school age.

·        Data from the National Center for Victims of Crime show that 25% of low-income inner-city children have personally seen someone be murdered.

·        Another study of 7 year old kids revealed that 75% had heard gunshots, 18% had seen a dead body, and 10% had personally seen someone shot or stabbed in their home.

These statistics represent millions of boys and girls who have been victims of some of the most serious events a person can experience. These same kids are expected to attend school, focus on the academic material and retain the information, navigate relationships with teachers, classmates and administrators, and maintain personal friendships. This is a tall order for people whose brains and therefore decision-making and coping skills are not yet fully developed. And if that weren’t enough, in many cases, complex trauma is at play because multiple traumatic events have occurred.

Complex trauma and the resulting traumatic stress is widely known to cause learning and cognitive problems, poor concentration, compromised developmental progress and emotional dysregulation. Knowing this information and being willing to apply it to black children in school settings can revolutionize how black students are taught and disciplined. What is viewed as sullenness, back talk, hot tempers and short fuses, or inarticulation and poor communication skills can be instead recognized as stunted emotional development, hyper interpersonal protection, and withdrawal. Inattention or poor academic performance even with extra help can become catalysts to explore a child’s history rather than a referral to detention, special education, or an ‘alternative’ school.

The issues that create barriers for black adults addressing mental health are the same when it comes to black children getting help. Concept 10 of the 12 Concepts for Understanding Traumatic Stress Responses in Children and Families, developed by the NCTSN curriculum task force accurately describes the hurdles in the black community:


Culture is closely interwoven with experiences, response, and recovery.

Culture can profoundly affect the meaning that a child or family attributes to specific types of traumatic events such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, and suicide. Culture may also powerfully influence the ways in which children and their families respond to traumatic events including the ways in which they experience and express distress, disclose personal information to others, exchange support, and seek help. A cultural group’s experiences with historical or multigenerational trauma can also affect their responses to trauma and loss, their world view, and their expectations regarding the self, others, and social institutions. Culture also strongly influences the rituals and other ways through which children and families grieve over and mourn their losses.

Here are possible ways during the school year to help and support children cope with traumatic stress.

Encourage them to set up text support groups with their friends. Their group would be for the sole purpose of venting about and discussing problems, listening to others’ issues, and offering suggestions for solutions.

Introduce students to the concept of a “Pact”, based on the book by ‘The Three Doctors’, Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt, and Lisa Frazier. Seeing the example of young men who grew up experiencing traumatic events yet thriving through their mutual commitment to persevere and overcome can be a powerful inspiration for students. Sharing their journey together can also solidify their understanding of interdependence and its power to transform lives.

Show students how to journal both individually and in groups. The success of programs like Free Minds Book Club show that the freedom and outlet for self-expression is vital to helping young people process traumatic life events.

Form listening groups where students can listen to and discuss playlists they create with music that soothes their emotions, empowers them or helps them more productively work through thoughts and feelings.

We can all make a decision to make a difference in the lives of the young black students this year.


*The census age categories go up to age 19.

Chandra C.Comment