Nearly half of children nationwide experience at least one traumatic event before they reach age 17.
That’s according to a recently released report examining trauma among children from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, compiled from government data.
That statistic doesn’t surprise DeJernet Farder, who teaches first grade at Morton School of Excellence in East Garfield Park.
“One hundred percent of our kids have had a traumatic event,” she said.
Through her seven years in teaching, she said, she’s had students who have experienced domestic violence, sexual abuse or living in a neighborhood where they are likely to be exposed to violence.
“I have children that have lovely families,” she said. “But they still live in our neighborhood. They still hear the gunshots at school and at home.”
The study compiled trauma experienced by children from birth through age 17, from abuse, neglect and racial prejudice to a parent’s incarceration or witnessing violence.
Out of all the traumatic events, divorce was most common, with about 25 percent of children reporting a parent or guardian splitting. After that, 9 percent had lived with someone with an alcohol or substance abuse problem, 8 percent had a parent in jail and 8 percent had lived with someone with mental illness. About 6 percent witnessed violence by parents or other adults.
The report was released May 10 for National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day in Washington, D.C., where Illinois first lady Diana Rauner spoke about trauma-informed care. Rauner is president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an early childhood nonprofit that aims to prepare children for success in school and life.
“It really is about breaking almost an intergenerational cycle of trauma by focusing on the whole person,” she said. “When you think about how many people are suffering from traumatic experiences, that they live with and they carry with them in all sorts of ways, it’s an enormous public health emergency.”
Understanding how to recognize and respond to trauma can help children, Rauner said. Angry and antisocial behavior, for example, might be a sign, said Farder.
“You also see that kid that out of nowhere just becomes quiet and won’t make eye contact and doesn’t want to play anymore at recess,” she said.
The report highlighted that treatments, including therapy, can improve behavioral and emotional health as well as school attendance. After a year of treatment, children reported fewer suicidal thoughts and less withdrawal or aggression, according to the report.
Farder has undergone training through Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union on recognizing and responding to signs of trauma. She said she hopes that eventually every teacher will.
“We really are trauma first responders. We are the people who see them and love them the most outside the home,” Farder said. “We need to have that skill set to identify our children when they’re in trauma and to support them through that process.”
She makes sure her classroom doesn’t include loud noises or changes to structure. If there’s a fire drill or assembly, she gives her students ample notice.
This week, she said, her first-graders are learning about the Declaration of Independence.
“They’re very, very excited to learn about government,” she said.