Our students are traumatized. They are living with fear and confusion. They are experiencing or witnessing police violence, rioting and looting. And schools, a place where children typically process events and emotions, are shuttered.
What are children to do? Who will acknowledge, understand and respond to their trauma and its accompanying symptomology? Who’s there to enable our students to understand racism and violence, and to mitigate the lack of certainty in our world? Who will lead our children forward with hope for a better tomorrow, a world in which we protect our Black and Brown children?
Let’s begin by understanding how we got to this spot.
Prior to the pandemic and the most recent instances of police brutality, America’s students were already traumatized. In addition to family-based trauma, homelessness and food insecurity, children were living through the aftermath of natural disasters and school shootings.
We needed to respond and help them. We were only just recognizing the need for, and the value of, trauma responsiveness. Then, in the blink of an eye, the coronavirus pandemic struck and our world changed.
Schools closed with lightning speed; online learning was instituted as a solution, but it hasn’t been a panacea for many learners. Children were cut off from the structure, stability and safety that schools provide. Teacher engagement was drastically reduced; students were not gaining valuable psychosocial development.
“We need to care about all children, not just the children we have in our own families or who look like us …”
People were wearing masks and social-distancing, and stay-at-home orders became the norm. There were regular news accounts of people getting ill and some dying, including a disproportionate percentage of minorities. And make no mistake about it: Home life for many children wasn’t warm and welcoming.
Then, as if we hadn’t had enough strife, yet another African American man was killed by a white police officer. Peaceful protests for a nation sorely needing greater racial harmony and equality morphed into violence in some locales.
A visibly increased presence of armed officers and military became the new norm. Tear gas, rubber bullets, barriers and riot gear have become omnipresent.
For our many Black and Brown children, the threats to their physical safety now and into the future are eating away at their insides.
It is at moments like these that we realize the true value of our schools.
Were our schools open, they would give our children much-needed support.
Students would have access to adults who could help them process what is occurring and provide ways to ameliorate their terror.
Students would have opportunities to talk to their peers and experience racial solidarity. They would have a place where they could protest and express anger in relative safety. They would have an increased sense of control and structure.
Don’t get me wrong: Schools are not a cure-all for racial discrimination. They are not hotbeds of equality. They are not perfect places. Teachers are not all experts at addressing racism and trauma.
But, schools are an alternative to chaos. At a minimum, schools provide a space and place to congregate, engage and use words to communicate feelings. Being able to name what is happening is a key first step.
Here’s one way to move forward: As we plan for school reopenings, we can seize the opportunity to reduce the immense challenges that children were, and still are, experiencing. At the moment, though, too few educators have focused on student trauma and mental well-being; they are focused instead on pragmatics like controlling disease spread and appropriate grade-levels for returning students.
Who will lead us, if schools cannot? We need to look elsewhere for leaders and role models, and sadly I see neither. As a product of the 1960s, I distinctly remember protests, from Kent State and the Democratic Convention to the marches. And what comes to mind immediately, in addition to enduring protest songs, are the remarkable leaders and role models.
I remember leaders who offered calm. I remember leaders who expressed outrage at unnecessary war. I remember leaders who fought for and spoke passionately about racial justice. These were men and women of all races. Their voices were passionate; they — including leaders within academic institutions — used the bully pulpit. These people were not just tending their own gardens; they were tending the gardens of our nation.
Things are different now, but children still need role models.
Children need adults who can convey calm. They need to believe that adults can help restore order. They need to know that adults will fight for solutions to what ails our nation. They need to see adults pressing forward; they need adults whom they can respect.
Our leaders aren’t doing this. Some key leaders in Washington, D.C., are anti-role models. They are inflammatory. They don’t speak the truth. They remain silent when words are needed.
The answer to the question of who is helping our children if parents and schools cannot is frighteningly simple: no one. And that is one reason, despite all of the risks, for reopening schools as soon as possible.
We need to care about all children, not just the children we have in our own families or who look like us, as political scientist Robert Putnam pointed out. We need to care about all children because it is children who will forge our collective future.
If the effects of the pandemic and racial disparities and the accompanying anger and violence are not addressed in both the near and longer terms, we will have another calamity on our hands: already-traumatized children becoming even more traumatized.
That’s not acceptable.
This story about young people and trauma was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Karen Gross, an author and educator specializing in student success and the effects of trauma on psychosocial development, is a former college president and U.S. Department of Education policy adviser. Her most recent book is “Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door: Strategies and Solutions for Educators, PreK-College.”