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May 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 8

Confronting Inequity / The Trauma We Don't See

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Social-emotional learning
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When I was in 3rd grade, I vomited every night because I was so overcome by fear and anxiety about the dangers outside of my family's one-bedroom apartment. I remember lying in the full-size bed I shared with my twin sister and aunt, shivering as gun shots exploded near the window.
It is only in the past decade that I have come to realize that I still carry with me the trauma of having grown up in an unsafe neighborhood terrorized by the violence of poverty and racist policies. For years, I had convinced myself that because I performed well in school and have continued to experience success in work and in life, I was fine. However, the traumas of a childhood burdened by fear, bigotry, and family suffering have not left me unscathed. To the outside world, I may look as if I am thriving—winning awards, speaking nationally, and writing a book—but underneath it all, I am still on my healing journey, still putting myself back together.
Through self-work and support, I have learned that my trauma manifests in my overachievement—and the resulting lack of sleep—because overworking is something I can control. I can control the emails to which I respond. I can control the articles I write. I can control the speeches I give. I can control the meetings I attend.
Although research on the connection between trauma and overachievement is scarce, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting a link (Maté, 2010). What we do know is that the effects of trauma can be both immediate and long-term. The typical mental health sequelae of exposure to violence and other adverse childhood events include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and behavior problems. All of these are associated with lower grade-point averages and IQ, decreased high school graduation rates, and significant deficits in attention, abstract reasoning, long-term memory, and reading ability (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2016). But for me, most of these manifestations were not present. I graduated with honors from high school and excelled academically. For the most part, I do not suffer from depression or anxiety unless I am triggered.
We also know, from research, that trauma changes the biomarkers and brain structure in young people, which sometimes results in violent behavior, suicidal tendencies, and drug abuse (Park & Schepp, 2015). Additionally, youth who have experienced trauma tend to be less engaged in school, suffer greater chronic health conditions in childhood, and have lower employment productivity in adulthood (Wade et al., 2014). Again, these manifestations of trauma have not been true for me. I am mostly healthy and lead a productive life. (I sometimes wonder, however, whether my twin sister's chronic illness is a result of the toxic stressors we experienced as children.)
The fact is that while many people exhibit typical signs of trauma, many others, like me, have found ways to cope by pouring themselves into work to avoid the discomfort of their distress. Too often, the trauma of high achievers, especially those of color, goes unrecognized because their achievements are sometimes mistaken for resilience. While some of us may be excelling thanks to having a caring adult and other supports in our lives, the scars of our past remain, and we are still in need of care, love, and healing.

Deeper Healing

All this makes me worried about the overachieving Black students and youth of color who might be masking their pain. These worries are compounded by recent research showing that Black students' mental health needs tend to be undertreated and underrecognized, and that suicidal behavior is on the rise among Black children (Lindsey et al., 2019).
Trauma does not manifest in the same ways in different people. Thus, we must engage in a concerted effort to recognize the diverse manifestations of trauma in our students and stop lumping them under one umbrella. We can best support our students who may be at risk for trauma by getting to know them; discovering their gifts; paying attention to and meeting their unique needs; being consistent, nurturing adults in their lives; helping them find and access mental health services; and integrating healing-centered practices that build off of their strengths (Ginwright, 2018). We must also commit to developing anti-racist and anti-bias mindsets, pedagogies, and school policies, to disrupt the trauma of racism and other identity-based violence that many youth at the margins experience on a regular basis (English et al., 2020).
We must also remember that our students do not owe us their trauma for us to believe they deserve healing. Our responsibility is to create policies, practices, and school environments that do not traumatize or retraumatize our students.
As we aim to meet the needs of our students, adults like me who have repressed their traumas must also commit to taking care of ourselves, setting boundaries, and seeking support from friends, professionals, or family. Although not all educators can relate to my experiences, we are all susceptible to vicarious trauma, the emotional residue we pick up from other people's stories and experiences of trauma. If we are not whole for ourselves, we cannot be whole for our students.
By modeling our healing behaviors and practices, we can support students in recognizing their gifts and possibilities. Above all, together, we must commit to taking care of one another. We must do the necessary and deliberate work of confronting and eradicating the unjust systems that perpetuate trauma for too many of us simply because of the color of our skin, our zip code, our gender, our health status, and other aspects of our identities.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2016). From best practices to breakthrough impacts: A science-based approach to building a more promising future for young children and families. Cambridge, MA: Author.

English, D., Lambert, S. F., Tynes, B. M., Bowleg, L., Zea, M. C, & Howard, L. C. (2020). Daily multidimensional racial discrimination among Black U.S. American adolescents. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 66, 1–12.

Ginwright, S. (2018, March 31). The future of healing: Shifting from trauma informed care to healing centered engagement. Medium.

Lindsey, M., Sheftall, A. H., Xiao, Y., & Joe, S. (2019). Trends of suicidal behaviors among high school students in the United States, 1991–2017. Pediatrics, 144(5), 1–10.

Maté, D. (2010). In the realm of hungry ghosts: Close encounters with addiction. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Park, S., & Schepp, K. G. (2015). A systematic review of research on children of alcoholics: Their inherent resilience and vulnerability. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(5), 1222–1231.

Wade, R. Jr., Shea, J. A., Rubin, D., & Wood, J. (2014). Adverse childhood experiences of low-income youth. Pediatrics, 134(1), 13–20.

Dena Simmons is an activist, educator, and student of life from The Bronx, New York and founder of LiberatED, a collective focused on developing school-based resources at the intersection of social and emotional learning (SEL), racial justice, and healing. 

Simmons writes and speaks nationally about social justice and culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy as well as creating emotionally intelligent and safe classrooms within the context of equity and liberation. Her appearances include the White House, the inaugural Obama Foundation Summit, the United Nations, two TEDx talks, and a TED talk on Broadway. 

She is former Assistant Director of Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of the forthcoming book, White Rules for Black People

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