New Research Offers Hope for Children We’ve Written Off for Too Long

By Robert K. Ross and Esta Soler

“She’s withdrawn and doesn’t listen.”

“He’s been a discipline problem for as long as he’s been at this school.”

“She talks back, agitates and causes problems with other kids.”

“He’s rude to his teachers and never does his work.”

For generations, those have been the ways we’ve described many of the children we peg as troublemakers — the ones we punish and eventually write off. But today, at long last, that may be changing. Thanks to breakthroughs in medical science, we are beginning to recognize that many children and youth who behave in those ways have experienced trauma that has altered the development of their brains.

We now know that repeatedly experiencing or witnessing traumatic events, like domestic violence, shootings or fighting, can affect the physical development of a child’s brain. Over time, the severe stress caused by poverty and toxic environments can “rewire” a child’s brain, which can lead to lifelong health and social problems, including long-term illnesses such as depression, drug abuse, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and stroke. The impact can be felt across generations.

In a groundbreaking segment on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Oprah Winfrey shined a spotlight on this new research, which does more than identify the root of the problem. It offers real hope for reversing the effects of their trauma.

That’s tremendously exciting news: These studies show that, if we ask the right questions and provide the right supports, the brains of children who behave badly can heal, their ability to learn can be restored, and their futures can be bright.

But too often we provide harmful, instead of helpful, interventions. Too often, our response to the effects of trauma is punishment — suspensions and expulsions from school. Not only do such strategies fail; they also worsen racial disparities, harming Black students in particular and leading to higher rates of school drop-out and involvement in the juvenile justice system.

The key is providing trauma-informed interventions, which means addressing the experiences traumatized children have endured, instead of simply demanding that they change their behavior. That would be a profound change in how we work with children who have faced the trauma of poverty, virulent racism, unsafe communities, domestic or family violence, sexual abuse, and similar problems

The first question we need to ask is not: What’s wrong with you? It needs to be: What happened to you? And then we need to ensure that these children can develop relationships with consistent, caring adults — a relative, teacher, pastor, coach, neighbor or almost anyone in their lives who is patient and compassionate. The young brain is malleable and this kind of intervention can reverse the adverse effects of sustained trauma.

That is a game-changer for these kids. So what are the steps to a healthy future for traumatized kids?

First, we need to do much more to prevent the kind of trauma that effects too many children in our communities and our country today and avoid re-traumatizing youth because we fail to recognize the harm they have suffered.

Second, we need to train the education workforce on how to identify exposure to trauma and violence, and support teachers who are affected by violence, either in their own lives or vicariously, so they are able to help students who have been traumatized.

Third, we need to modernize school curricula to promote healing and social development beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

Fourth, we need to engage youth and families in solutions and build resilient communities that will better serve children and families who have experienced trauma. When schools and communities partner together, students do better.

Finally, we need to rethink school discipline, understand the trauma of historical injustice and ensure equity across race and gender so we alleviate — instead of compound — children’s trauma. Let’s implement restorative justice and use mediation to make sure schools are places youth feel safe and are safe, and where high expectations make it possible for all kids to succeed.

We don’t have a very good record of investing in prevention in this country. Instead, we tend to focus on punishment after problems become severe. This new research offers a roadmap for change. Now that we understand the brain science, it’s time to ensure that our education, social service and other systems prioritize the kinds of solutions that will change traumatized children’s lives and improve their futures — and ours.

Robert K. Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment. Esta Soler is president and founder of Futures Without Violence.