Why traumatized students can’t learn and what community colleges can do about it

By Mark Dennis

A few semesters ago, I received this email from a student in my human sexuality class whom I will call “Karla”:

Dear Professor Dennis, I am sorry that I have not been in class the past three weeks. My daughter and I recently became homeless due to domestic violence … CFS (Children and Family Services) has opened a case … I have fallen behind on school-work … is there anything that I can do to still pass the class…?

I emailed Karla immediately, tried to express empathy, and told her that I would do everything I could to help her catch up. I never heard from her again.

I have taught in community colleges for the past 10 years and have received more emails like this than I can count. I don’t know what ultimately happened to Karla, but one thing is clear: Within one semester, she experienced at least three events that could lead to lingering trauma.

As a former marriage and family therapist, I believe that an important and often overlooked barrier to student success is trauma and its impact on students’ lives and learning capacities. Only 13% of students who enter a community college with the goal of transferring do so within a two-year time frame. Researchers and educational leaders who are exploring ways to improve outcomes for community college students have suggested interventions from removing remedial math and English requirements, to developing “road maps” to help students with course selection. To create lasting change, however, we need to become more trauma-informed.

Recognizing trauma

When we think of trauma, we often think of Hollywood depictions like The Hurt Locker where soldiers experience vivid flashbacks and violent outbursts. In reality, the symptoms of trauma are usually more subtle, e.g., dissociation or feeling outside of one’s body, poor concentration and extreme fatigue are all common signs. Students who stare out of the window and seem to be daydreaming, frequently ask questions that have already been answered, or fall asleep in class may not be disinterested, they may be exhibiting signs of trauma.

How pervasive is trauma?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 61% of Americans experienced a traumatic event in childhood, and that poverty increases the likelihood of trauma. Community college students are more likely than students at four-year schools to qualify as low-income and, at least in theory, are more likely to experience trauma.

After receiving many emails from students like Karla, I collected data last year in the form of the adverse childhood experiences  (ACE) questionnaire. It consists of 10 simple questions and tabulates the number of traumatic experiences — like domestic violence, divorce and substance abuse — a person had in childhood. Several studies suggest that just one traumatic event dramatically increases the risk of alcoholism, depression and even physical disorders like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Over two semesters, I had 240 students from my introductory psychology classes take the questionnaire. While a 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health study found that 45% of children had an ACE score of one or higher, 78% of the community college students I surveyed had experienced at least one childhood trauma.

What can be done

The trend in higher education is to allocate significantly more resources to wealthy, high-achieving students while leaving the leftovers for economically disadvantaged students with the greatest educational needs. Private research universities spend five times as much per student per year ($71,597) as do community colleges ($14,090), for example. This has to change.

Initiatives like those proposed by the Century Foundation calling for the federal government to match state funding of community colleges should be adopted. Studies have shown that investments in community colleges have the potential for strong returns when students are successful. An associate degree alone can increase earnings by as much as 22%.

Increases in funding should come with the stipulation that a significant portion of these funds be allocated for mental health.

Not all therapies are created equal. While talk therapy has become the norm in mental health, new research suggests that “ bottom up” approaches to mental health, like somatic experiencing and movement therapy (that teach participants how to create and maintain a regulated nervous system), are much more effective at treating trauma.

While healing trauma may be beyond the expertise of many community college faculty and staff, there are steps that anyone can take to address one of trauma’s core features: a feeling of unsafety in safe situations. Starting class with breathing exercises and allowing students to move, stretch and take care of their physical needs without judgment can go a long way towards increasing feelings of safety.

Those who interact with students should also address their own trauma and learn to calm and settle their bodies. Research shows that our own physiological arousal has a profound effect on others and that calm settled bodies have a settling effect on the bodies of those around them.

Trauma does not have to thwart the aspirations of community college students. There are actions that faculty, staff, administrators and the general public can take to mitigate its effects and help students succeed.

Mark Dennis

is chair of the psychology department at Sacramento City College (California). He is also a Phi Theta Kappa faculty advisor and a recent graduate of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.