The connection between trauma and the dropout crisis

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Talk to students who have dropped out and each of them has a back story. They describe overwhelming troubles at home, pregnancy, running with the wrong crowd, the death of a loved one, conflict with teachers and staff.

But rarely if ever do they mention living in poverty or exposure to trauma—two distinct yet intertwined conditions in children’s lives that experts say can go far in explaining the root cause of the dropout crisis.

“Trauma is not a singular event; neither is poverty,” said Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, executive director of the Philadelphia Youth Network and co-chair of Project U-Turn. There is a “cycle of experiences,” she said, that can vary from homelessness to the unexpected death of a family member to food insecurity to experiencing a high level of violence in the neighborhood.

“Poverty and trauma are mutually reinforcing and negatively correlated,” Fulmore-Townsend said. "Young people living in poverty are more likely to experience trauma … and the psychological effects of trauma make it harder to overcome poverty. It’s an unwieldy, challenging problem.”

Research supports this view. Using brain scans, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that poverty can slow the rate of growth in two key brain structures in small children. According to Seth Pollack, a lead researcher, brains of infants from different economic backgrounds look similar at birth. But by age 4, children in poor families showed deficits that help explain behavioral and learning problems.

The impact of trauma on children, youth, and adults deep into their lives has been extensively documented and has spurred schools to become expert in and adopt trauma-informed practices to boost children’s emotional-social well-being. The ongoing Philadelphia ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study, for instance, has documented how stress and trauma in childhood can result in impaired social, emotional and cognitive impairments, as well as chronic diseases and unhealthy behaviors throughout one’s life.

According to Fulmore-Townsend, research also shows that “the caring adult is one of the most critical interventions” to boost the chances that a young person will persevere. The Graduation Coach Campaign initiative in the Mayor’s Office is helping create what she calls “a network of champions” for young people.

“Everybody’s path is unique,” said Fulmore-Townsend. “Our job is to make sure there is an adult ready to help them as they step forward, that there’s a way to reconnect with school or an employment readiness service” or other support.

“Those are the people who help young people deal with that unrelenting stress, perhaps not preventing them from dropping out, but supporting them when they U-turn or reconnect with their education. There’s real power in that.”