Trauma in our students? How the environment we grow up in can have serious reprocussions for our futures and for our mental health

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The Problem

Growing up in poverty is an epidemic. There is no question about it. The U.S. Census Bureau shows that 1 in 4 children in the United States spends some or even all of their childhood in poverty. And for these children, the problems are endless. There are a variety of reasons that children in poverty are at a huge disadvantage compared to other children. And it goes much deeper than inadequate schools with underpaid teachers who aren’t paid enough to care. It even begins to affect the mental health of these children.

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Objective Problems at a glance

  • Lack of preparation: Fewer low-income children have access to quality early childhood education so they enter kindergarten lacking basic skills such as letter recognition and counting skills.
  • Poor nutrition: Children sometimes come to school hungry, which makes it difficult to concentrate as well as grow physically fit.
  • Lack of Medical Care: Low-income children may not see the doctor that often so vision problems, dental problems, and mental health issues do not get addressed as quickly and make it harder for children to learn. This includes mental health.
  • High mobility: Children of poor families tend to move frequently, which disrupts their education. When they move from one school to another there is a lack of continuity and they may miss learning entire concepts.
  • Dysfunctional families: Families of low-income children often have a myriad of issues that mean children come home to a chaotic rather than calm home. That puts additional strain on the children who may be handling adult problems and make it difficult to concentrate. In addition, children may have little time to do homework and no help with it.
  • Lack of English: low-income families often don’t speak fluent English

The problems are large and difficult to conquer easily. In a country where your education degree equals your income, the simple fix would be to send all of these students to college. But for most of them, college isn’t even on the table, but for those who get scholarships and Pell grants, they find themselves ill-suited for the rigorous higher education.

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Beyond Education-Related Deficiencies

There is research coming out that poverty plays a huge impact on mental health. According to psychological scientists Gary Evans and Rochelle Cassells, there is a correlation between Children who spend more time in poverty and higher levels of externalizing symptoms (overactivity, poor impulse control, noncompliance, and aggression) and learned helplessness (a feeling of powerlessness caused by trauma or persistent failure to succeed ) at age 17. Children exposed to certain factors like separation of family, violence, crowding, and substandard living conditions are at risk for exposure to trauma and mental health problems. Evans and Cassells wrote, “with certain experiences precipitating other events and circumstances that further pressure the adaptive capacities of children and their families as they contend with poverty.”

How does Stress and Trauma Impact Motivation?

As reported, learned helplessness is a huge problem affecting children growing up in poverty. Over and over again, these children try to change the situation they are in. But over and over again, their situation has set them up for failure. And in the end, after being told they are failures so many times, they eventually believe they are failures. And because of this, the motivation of these adolescents is seriously affected. How can we fix this? There are three methods that should help students with chronic motivation problems.

  • Focus on early stages of learning. The early stages are so important because the longer helplessness is established, the harder it is to get rid of it.
  • Effort Feedback: Teachers can encourage students’ efforts by saying things like, “if you study, you’ll do well on the test.” Indicating that effort is a direct component of success is important. This also plays a huge role in growth mindset.
  • Goal Setting: Setting realistic goals for students is important for students who are intimidated by the daunting task of doing well in school when they are so used to doing poorly.

Using Positive Psychology to Help

Studies show that those who succeed the most are not the smartest, or the most athletic, and the wittiest, it is those who have the most grit. In order to fix a lot of these problems, and stop the cycle of impoverished students, it is important to cultivate a community filled with grit and overall gritty people. Resilience is a key factor in success and unfortunately, it is a trait that isn’t often found in poorer communities.

Another important theory practiced by positive psychologists is growth mindset. Growth mindset is a way of thinking in which the only way to do well or get better at something is to try hard and practice. Those with a fixed mindset are likely to blame others for their failure, whereas those with a growth mindset see failure as a gateway to success, by trying harder and practicing more. Students in poverty, who have almost every disadvantage against them could often find themselves with a fixed mindset, creating excuses for their failure. It is important for both teachers and parents to teach growth mindset from a young age in order to set the students up for the future.

One possible way that I could spread this information would be through an online workshop for teachers and educators. I would teach them about the facts of students in poverty, specifically students of color: the extreme stress of poverty and under-resourced schools can have on these students, and the trauma they obtain because of that. It would teach them about their home-life, and how that could have serious impacts on their school life, and vice versa. The workshop would include information on how to help these students, and how to work their mental roadblocks and traumas. This would include the importance of grit and growth mindset. The workshop would be easily accessible to anyone on the internet.


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  1. April 26, 2019 by Alex.Lepa

    Hi Kailen,
    Thank you for your project. As someone who suffers from PTSD as well as other diagnoses, it was really nice to feel represented in these projects. I especially liked your paragraph about positive phycology as it highlighted the grit and resilience needed to continue with therapy. How would you include people who may not have access to technology in your webinar? Thanks.

  2. April 27, 2019 by Kailen Citron

    Hey Alex! To answer your question, how would I include people who may not have access to technology? I would say that I am trying to bring up a point that poverty is stressful regardless of who you are, but when you happen to be a student, and you have the forces of both poverty and school weighing you down you can become traumatized. And to get this point across, it could even be done on a paper poster. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on the internet.

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