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From the Playground to the Classroom: Understanding Race-Based Trauma in Adolescents

The mental health impact of the pandemic has exacerbated the already heavy mental health strain on some students. Students of color face a unique set of challenges within the classroom and in their communities.

Racial trauma can be found in both historical and present-day situations and has evolved over time. For educators and parents alike, it’s important to understand what it’s like for children who experience racial trauma and ways to help combat racism.

While people of color of all ages are at risk of being subjected to racial bias, discrimination, or racism, children are at a particular risk. Traumatic experiences like racism can alter a child’s brain development and have lasting consequences, as adolescence is a critical emotional development period.

Race-Based Trauma in Our Classrooms: A Personal Perspective

For many students, schools can be a primary and reoccurring source of race-based trauma. Over one-third of all high school students report being treated poorly or unfairly because of race in their lifetime.

Discrimination within schools can occur in a range of settings and can significantly impact the education of students of color. Research shows that Black students are prone to experiencing microaggressions or narratives that they are less worthy than their White peers. Studies also show that Black and Latino students tend to be punished more harshly than their White peers for similar infractions or behavioral concerns.

Sadly, this is an all-too-familiar situation for my family. After the first few weeks of school in the second grade, my son, the only Black student in his class, came home crying, telling me he hated himself. He explained that over the past several days, other students had been bullying him over his hair texture and skin color. They asked him why his hair didn’t move, why it didn’t look like everyone else, and what was “wrong” with him. Soon, what started in his class spread to students across multiple grades, teasing and targeting my son. He began to question his worth, his self-esteem suffered, and he started to lose his love for school. What may seem minor, was absolutely devastating to my seven-year-old son.

While trying to help him, I was flooded with memories of my own first experience of more obvious racism, which also occurred early in my school career, in first grade. I was chased, called racial slurs, and as a result, started to fear going to school. We must realize when we’re working with children, we have no idea when their first experience with racism was or how it continues to impact them.

Stories like ours cross generations and state lines. When looking at race-based trauma through a mental health lens, children who are on the receiving end of these experiences can be perceived as “acting out.” Children regress when they feel overwhelmed, afraid, stressed, and possibly lack the communication skills to adequately express themselves. This may lead to children reverting to more juvenile behaviors. Before reprimanding, educators should talk calmly with a child to ask them what or why they think their behavior has changed. It’s important for educators to monitor for these behavior changes, recognize and acknowledge them with students, and validate those fears and concerns.

Mental Health, Physical Health, and Race-based Trauma

The sum of all adverse childhood experiences adds up to a significant toll over the long term. Some recently published research shows that race-based trauma can have a negative impact on both the mind and the body.

New evidence has found that racial trauma and discrimination can increase the risk for health complications. Researchers in Atlanta conducted MRI scans on a group of Black female adults, and the study’s authors found that, “racial discrimination can increase distress and impact emotional regulation, which is likely to affect self-regulatory behaviors that play a role in the development of mental and physical health disorders.”

Those who have a higher difficulty regulating behaviors as a result of traumatic experiences may engage in over-eating and substance abuse and are more likely to be faced with obesity, liver disease, and other physical health issues.

In my professional opinion, the connection between this research and children is clear. Race-based trauma in children has potentially life-long mental and physical health implications that shouldn’t be ignored.

Next Steps

Parents, educators, and schools should work to inform students, parents, and teachers about racism and how harmful it can be. Incorporating diversity, equity and inclusion trainings into professional development is one step to help reduce the occurrence of bias amongst teachers.

It is also important for schools to understand trauma and to implement trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive practices. Parents and educators should focus on being more aware and conscious of how things you may not see can impact students. No two children are the same, so it’s important to factor in their unique experiences and cultures. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) recommends creating safe environments that encourage children to share how they feel and what they’ve experienced. Additionally, students should be empowered to speak up for themselves when necessary. This helps promote general wellbeing and combats feelings of helplessness often associated with racial trauma.

The effects of race-based discrimination don’t stop when children enter the classroom. In the midst of our country’s pediatric mental health crisis, an initiative I encourage our educators to take is making sure students of color feel supported and understood while recovering from or managing traumatic experiences. More importantly, we must work to avoid the trauma from occurring and become more inclusive, trauma-sensitive environments.

About the Author

Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite is a double Board-certified adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is the SVP and Chief Medical Officer of Non-Acute Care at Array Behavioral Care, the nation’s leading clinician-centric virtual psychiatry and therapy practice. Dr. Christian-Brathwaite’s specialties include trauma-informed care, telepsychiatry, mental health in communities of color, school psychiatry, implicit bias, and racism in mental health.

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If you are in crisis, call 988 to talk with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, text HOME to 741741 to connect to a free crisis counselor, or go to your nearest emergency room.