Dr. Maryam Jernigan-Noesi has been thinking about and studying children’s mental health since she was a child herself. I recently talked to her about the racial trauma students of color experience in schools and how districts can support kids on the path to health and success.
Why did you become a psychologist specializing in youth trauma?
I have known since early childhood that I wanted to work in the field of mental health based on exposure I had as the child of a Vietnam veteran who was actively involved in advocating for culturally competent mental health care for veterans of color. Based on my early exposure, I have had the long-held belief that if you can assist individuals earlier in the lifespan with mental health issues, including trauma, their outcomes may be better in adulthood.
How does racial trauma impact a student’s ability to succeed academically and socially?
There is increased awareness among educators regarding the fact that mental health and psychosocial development may positively or negatively influence student outcomes. So, it is important to understand the specific situations that may promote or serve as barriers to student achievement.
Emerging research continues to demonstrate the fact that experiences of racism and racial discrimination are associated with experiences of post-traumatic stress symptoms. The consequences of racial trauma can lead to a variety of negative cognitive (i.e., flashbacks), emotional (i.e., numbing) and behavioral (i.e., avoidance) outcomes, which inevitably affect student learning and performance.
What trends exist in educational environments where racial trauma is prevalent (i.e. lack of diversity, lack of professional development and cultural competency, etc.)?
Educational environments that lack racial and ethnic diversity, in general, are more likely to be unaware of systemic and interpersonal dynamics that may promote negative experiences and interactions for underrepresented students. Additionally, educational institutions that lack diversity within their administrative team, in particular, are vulnerable as well.
Administrators often set the tone for a given academic environment. When administrative decisions are made, there is a greater chance of ensuring that diverse perspectives underlie those decisions if there is representation from more than one predominant group.
When working within educational institutions, we often hear feedback from staff, instructors and administrators about the lack of knowledge and information necessary to identify issues, promote more inclusive spaces and appropriately respond to experiences of discrimination.
Professional development that focuses on culturally relevant pedagogy, culturally responsive teaching and intervention, and that promotes diversity and inclusion are particularly useful in raising awareness about the ways that educational environments may perpetuate racism and discrimination.
Who’s responsible for/involved in ensuring students receive all of the support they need to overcome their trauma?
The success of any program or service begins with our engagement of the administration and/or school district. As is the case with any organizational intervention, its success is contingent upon how invested those that are in charge of making decisions, are in the process.
For example, it is often the case that one mental health provider may be assigned to a given school. Ideally, the provider and school would work to identify additional outside referral sources in the community. They would also work to collaborate with community providers or agencies that may be able to offer group-based services to students. This allows for greater impact in larger school settings where direct service resources may be limited.
Students and parents/caretakers are integral to our services as well. We have developed student programs to increase their self-awareness and teach them the importance of inclusive spaces, how they can work to create them and how to cope and advocate if they have negative or discriminatory experiences within an educational environment. We also work with parents to engage them prior to any proposed service or program, as a part of our assessment. Based on feedback, we have also provided training for parents/caretakers in an effort to reinforce any service programming that may be implemented at the school or district level.
Schools should develop protocols and collaborate with their surrounding communities to ensure that students have the appropriate support to address any concerns related to trauma.
What policy recommendations, school reforms or best practices do you recommend for reducing racial trauma for students of color in schools?
Although it is our experience that increased interpersonal experiences of racial discrimination are more often reported in less racially and diverse school systems, it is important to note that schools with demographics that reflect predominantly student of color populations are not immune. Racism and racial discrimination is not solely an interpersonal phenomenon. There are policies and practices in place that reflect systemic racism.
In addition, students of color may be coping with larger societal experiences of racism (like police brutality or harassment of people of color) that occurs outside of school. Training staff or developing and implementing programming that teaches students how to identify if they are experiencing race-based post-traumatic stress responses and how to cope can minimize potential effects that would impact student learning and success.