Difficulty concentrating is a common traumatic stress reaction in children, and correlates with lower performance in school. In response, local school districts are working with the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to improve children’s ability to learn.
“A majority of children in the region are doing well, but a sizable number are still having significant difficulties,” said Joy Osofsky of the Louisiana Rural Trauma Services Center, a member of the NCTSN. “Parents, teachers, and administrators want to do what they can to facilitate learning. School is an important stabilizing force for many children, and their success there will further bolster their recovery from Hurricane Katrina.”
A survey of 2,757 students in grades 4-12 in New Orleans between December 2005 and May 2006 found that a high number of students reported post- traumatic stress reactions. These include disturbing memories and images (31 percent); avoiding thoughts and feelings about the hurricane (37 percent); irritability and outbursts (31 percent); and, difficultly completing school work (33 percent).
The survey was developed by the NCTSN and fielded by Howard Osofsky, MD, and Joy Osofsky, PhD, of the Louisiana Rural Trauma Services Center in conjunction with local schools. The schools and researchers sought to identify children’s needs and develop appropriate services.
Members of the NCTSN are working with school districts in the region to teach school staff how to address traumatic stress reactions in children and maximize their ability to concentrate and learn:
—Last year, Psychological First Aid (developed by NCTSN and the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress) was delivered in many schools in the region. Psychological First Aid is a front-line treatment that helps stabilize children and adults after a disaster.
—This summer, Howard and Joy Osofsky helped facilitate camps meant to address ongoing traumatic stress reactions in children, and ready them for the school year.
—Also this summer, NCTSN members who specialize in training others to address traumatic stress reactions in children have been conducting trainings in schools with teachers, administrators and counselors.
One of the experts conducting trainings in Louisiana schools was NCTSN member Marleen Wong, PhD. Research conducted by Wong last year in Los Angeles, with the RAND Corporation and the LA Unified School District, found that in some neighborhoods with high rates of crime and poverty, almost 90 percent of middle school students had witnessed community violence, such as a stabbing. About 27 percent of those children had symptoms of post- traumatic stress disorder. Children exposed to violence prior to 6th grade had markedly higher rates of absenteeism, school suspensions and expulsions, and markedly lower academic performance.
But Wong found that addressing traumatic stress reactions in children with brief interventions was directly correlated with improved academic performance. Experts expect similar results in New Orleans.
In the survey of New Orleans school children:
—About 1 in 3 students had been separated from a parent or guardian, and 1 in 10 still were separated when they completed the survey.
—More than 1 in 5 had experienced the death or injury of a family member or friend.
—Nearly half had a parent who was unemployed (a secondary stressor on families).
—49% met criteria for consideration for a mental health referral, with symptoms of PTSD or depression.
—More than 14% requested counseling.
The researchers also surveyed 824 children in preschool and grades 1 to 3, using an NCTSN questionnaire keyed to developmental age, and completed by parents. This survey found that 31% of the young children met the criteria for mental health referral and about 40% of parents sought services for their children.
In both surveys, children were from Orleans Parish, St. Bernard Parish, and among those displaced in St. John the Baptist Parish. The surveys were expected to take 20 minutes each but averaged 90 minutes because children and parents wanted to tell their stories. This research has not yet been published.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network works to improve the quality, effectiveness and availability of services for traumatized youth. The National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, at both the Duke University Medical Center and the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, coordinates the NCTSN. The NCTSN and the NCCTS are funded through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.