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The Silent Epidemic

By Dr. Barbara Sorrels
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As I watch the round-the-clock media coverage of the corona virus pandemic sweeping our country, I can’t help but think of the silent epidemic that has been invading our public-school system over the past decade. The epidemic is largely invisible to those outside the system. It is an epidemic of childhood trauma and neglect that affects children’s physical and mental health and learning. Many who know and understand what is happening are declaring trauma and its impact the number one health issue of our nation. Maltreatment and neglect in childhood change the biology of the child’s brain and body, compromising our children’s ability to learn and function in a classroom and in society.

As I watch the determined and brave faces of the nurses and doctors showing up for work each morning, I think of the brave teachers who show up in classrooms every day ready to do battle for the hearts and minds of kids. Increasing numbers of teachers know that it is highly likely that they will be spit upon, kicked, hit or cussed out by end of the day by hurting children who have been betrayed by those who are supposed to love and care for them.

As I listen to doctors and nurses plead for adequate protective gear, I think of the teachers who are trying to educate children without the proper supplies. Those who are charged with educating our most traumatized children do so without the materials and supplies they need. Sterile, uninviting classrooms greet of our most needy children. Teachers who have the means spend their own dollars furnishing their classroom; however, many of our teachers have nothing to spare because they live paycheck to paycheck. They struggle to put food on the table for their own family. What would happen if the government declared that front-line medical personal had to buy their own PPE? The nation would be in an uproar, yet that is basically how we fail to prepare our teachers every day.

I hear the exhaustion in the voices of medical personnel as they talk about the shortage of nurses needed to adequately tend to the needs of their patients. They voice their fear of losing patients due to of lack of personnel. I also see the weariness in the faces of our teachers who are overwhelmed by the number of children in their classes whose hearts and souls are broken due to trauma and neglect. Hospitals triage people, making sure that the most severely sick get the intensity of care they need. Yet, in classrooms today it is not uncommon for over half of the children to have a significant history of trauma and neglect that impairs their ability to learn and function in a group. But there is no triage…there isn’t enough personnel to adequately meet the intensity of the needs of all the students There is one teacher who is expected to meet the needs of all children.

I listen to the wisdom of the health experts that have been recruited to advise and inform our national leaders on how to mitigate the corona virus and bring healing to those afflicted. I am grateful to live in a country where cutting edge research emerges from laboratories on a minute to minute basis to help our nation move forward to bring protection and healing to our citizens. At the same time, I think about the decades of information and research sleeping in our libraries that provides insight and understanding on how to heal, educate and support children who have a history of trauma. We continue to give legislators and others who know little about the science of learning and development the power to make the rules. Curriculum choices are often made by administrators who left the classroom decades ago and have lost touch with what relevant, developmentally appropriate curriculum looks like. A lack of understanding of developmental processes allows districts to fall prey to publishing companies marketing their “research based” curriculum that ignores everything we know about child development. Yet year after year we keep doing the same thing expecting different results. It would be like giving doctors a bottle of aspirin to treat COVID-19.

Doctors are worried about what will happen when the medical community becomes ill and is no longer able to care for the sick. We will all be in a panic if we suddenly have to rely on health care provided by minimally trained nurses aides, veterinarians, or paramedics. Yet that has already happened in our schools. Due to the increasing teacher shortage—especially in areas that serve vulnerable children, we are filling classrooms with minimally-educated people who have insufficient training in curriculum and basically no training in child development. It’s like allowing a hospital administrator with no training in medicine to treat patients.

I increasingly meet amazing individuals who were at one time teaching in our public schools. They often tell me they left because they were no longer able to do what they believed in their heart was good for children. They were required to adhere to scripted curriculum that disrespects the developmental needs of children. They no longer want to be a part of a system that denies their training and expertise and requires them to use substandard practice.

There is no conversation about holding doctors accountable for the number of patient deaths that happen on their watch. Our country will not revoke the licenses of doctors who have high mortality rates in their hospitals during this pandemic. Nor will we be giving hospitals letter grades that will be published in the newspaper to hopefully shame them into lowering the death rate. This would be absurd. There are too many variables beyond the doctors’ control that influence the number of deaths.

All the medical community can do is to hold them accountable for best practice. Yet, each year many states assign a letter grade to schools based on test scores and publish the grades in the newspaper. In some parts of the country parents are given the option of moving their child to a different school. Schools may be put on probation, have funding with-held or suffer other disciplinary action. In some districts there is talk of linking teacher salaries to test scores.

Like doctors and their patients, teachers have little control over the habits and circumstances of a child’s life. Educators have no control over the domestic violence, lack of sleep, insufficient supervision or community violence that many children face on a daily basis. Like the medical community, there are too many variables that influence a child’s capacity to learn and function well in a classroom. But we can and should hold teachers accountable for using best practices informed by research.

Doctors and nurses are scrambling around the clock to meet the needs of the sick. They are working long hours and going above and beyond the call of duty to meet moral convictions and professional obligations. First responders and health care professionals are being hailed as heroes and rightly so. Yet all year long, teachers work long hours devising lesson plans for the child that is struggling, making phone calls to parents and worrying about their kids who go home to scarcity, neglect and trauma night after night. These first responders’ work is never done. When I am with teachers working in the trenches there is an unspoken “knowing” of what life is like for them on a daily basis. I see the exhaustion in their faces, the tears in their eyes because no matter what they do there is the sense that it is never enough.

I see reports of teachers going to homes during this pandemic delivering learning materials, food and supplies to their most needy children…often paid for out of their own pockets. They do this willingly for the love of children and yet we call them greedy when they ask for a raise, accuse them of wanting expensive cars or say they are being unreasonable. We live in an upside-down economy where things that matter the least get paid the most, and things that matter the most get paid the least. It is our teachers, childcare providers and those who care for the elderly that are our true public servants.

Why haven’t we responded to this silent epidemic in our schools? Is it because they are “just kids” and kids are resilient? Is it because we are so selfish as adults that we only care when it interferes with us and our own agenda? Is it that we are so far gone as a society that what we see happening to our kids seems “normal?” Or is it the system is so large and complicated by multiple variables, we’re unsure where to start? The research is in and there are answers in the science. Just like “shelter in place”, we need to be still and re-evaluate our strategies to control our current health crisis. My hope is this pandemic will provide a parallel understanding for our country of the critical role that teachers play in our culture, as many parents are navigating the uncharted waters of working from home with kids underfoot. Some districts are expecting children to keep up with assignments and class projects while mom and dad are also trying to meet deadlines and maintain their employment. My hope is that we will realize that teachers are indeed the “glue and the glitter” as one teacher said, that holds the fabric of our society together.

Copyright 2020 Dr. Barbara Sorrels. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Dr. Barbara Sorrels

Barbara Sorrels, EdD is a child development specialist, educator and consultant with a heart for “children from hard places.” As the founder of Connected Kids, she provides educators, parents and advocates with compassionate, evidence-based strategies for guiding children through trauma and other challenges. Her approach is based on the belief that when children feel connected to themselves, their families and …

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