The Trauma of School

It was the second week in a row that I noticed a learner across the room in our group falling asleep on his backpack in his seat.  My co-facilitator and I nodded at each other and Jake and I went and sat outside for a minute.

Me:  Jake, what is going on?  This is not how I have gotten to know you over the past few months.

Jake:  I am struggling, Miss. I am not sleeping. I hear bullets in my head all the time… But also I am not sure whether I must pray or what I must do.  I am afraid of what is happening.  We are going to die like this. 

Me:  Jake, I know there has been a lot going on, but has something happened more recently that made things feel too much?

Jake: Last night they shot someone in the street.  I can not concentrate, I am tired.  My mom is taking me to the clinic later because the teacher says my meds must be wrong. Maybe you can talk to her. 

Jake is one story of too many.  in his case, one of the strengths in his family is that his mom is taking him to the clinic for a follow-up. His mom confirmed that there was shooting the previous night in their block.  Again.  No one was sleeping well. 

Jake struggles at school – he knows that he is on a different learning path, and needs to work harder to read and understand than some of the peers in his class.  He should have had an assessment and referral to a school of skills, but the places there are limited and so Jake presses on in his current environment,  reactive, tired and struggling without the extra learning support that would benefit  him. 

Headlines recently have highlighted the number of learners who attend school hungry. Jake is like so many others.  And the difficulties in getting Jake assessed is also not an isolated incident. In the Western Cape, it’s known that only 2 learners per school per year will get an assessment from the Department of Education psychologist allocated to the school. Not because of unwillingness by the psychologists, but due to sheer number of assessments needed and the challenge of providing a service to the wide areas and number of schools they cover.  Two learners per school when you have between 24 – 28 schools per psychologist means only 48 – 56 learners per year can be assessed for the district. And the need is so much more.

How can this possibly serve the needs of learners, educators and the psychologists themselves, when these assessments include any crisis and short term therapy interventions that also need to be managed? I

Jake fell asleep in a group – but was frequently in trouble for his reactivity and distractibility in the classroom.  Was it impulse control, linked to ADHD or was it because he was a traumatized child which presented with ADHD like symptoms in a system not able to meet his needs?  

The reality is that the classes are too big for educators to be able address the learning gaps for many of the learners.  The admin and demands of a curriculum in a class with 40 to 50 learners who need extra attention add to the challenges of classroom management.  Add to this pressure, the truth that each learner arrives with their own internal pressures from home and life – whether these be the violence in their communities, or substance abuse or “just’ the economic pressures that families are facing. It’s too much for our educators and shows the brokenness in the system. And the result is that these learners who struggle drop out or end up being pushed out of school.

 Arise has too many stories that can be told where it is ‘suggested’ that a different school environment might be a better option for the learner, where families are referred to an external source for intervention on threat of suspension or expulsion, but the classroom management strategies and context of the child is not explored or acknowledged at school.

Learners like Jake are internalizing that they aren’t clever enough, or good enough, or that they only need to survive today without dreaming about tomorrow. This is a real challenge if we want to see the trajectory within our learners change, within our communities change. A challenge for the learners, but also the educators, who must be the mother or father, counselor and nurse too often for learners. This, in addition to ensuring the needs of the curriculum are met and evidence documented that learners’ needs are being identified in order to be placed on a list with no guarantee that the learner will be assisted in a time sensitive manner.

Ultimately, we need to ask the question of what message is being absorbed in schools when gender-based violence occurs on school grounds, between educators and learners as well as between learners themselves? Which world are children being prepared for in the current schooling system?  A world in which survival matters more than thriving or a world in which they have the space and are taught skills to critically think and apply what they are learning. 

We are grateful for the educators and principals who know each of their learners by names, who advocate for children like Jake.  The people in the classrooms who instill a sense of worth as well as values in the children in their care.  We see them.  We can see them and still acknowledge that for too many children, the system is not meeting them and their needs. In fact, it’s failing them. 

The gaps between different contexts are well documented – the impact on too many children whose faces we know and can name changes this from a system’s theory debate to something which becomes personal.  

So just what can you do?  We don’t want to point out the issues without also pointing to some ways to improve the path. One way is to advodcate for and partner with schools who are less resourced, not as a charity but in relationship.  Advocate where you can, in your spheres of influence, including to your faith leaders and ward councilors representing the management of the spaces we live in. And then, consider supporting organizations like Arise, and many others, who work towards developing a sense of belonging, worth and future dreams.  This allows you to both support children and their families, while still advocating for a system change.  Because school shouldn’t be an added trauma in a world which has too many challenges already.