A lot of factors can play into a student struggling at school, and Horace Mann Elementary’s staff has raised its awareness to the outside influences that affect children’s brain development.

Sedalia School District 200

“We have become more and more aware … of how trauma and adverse experiences affect children,” Horace Mann Principal Dr. Todd Fraley told the Sedalia School District 200 Board of Education at its July 24 meeting. Fraley said the school’s leadership philosophy has evolved in recent years to focus more on the whole child and not just academic data.

"Many students struggle in school due to the traumatic events they experience in their lives,” Fraley said. “Educators need to be aware and sensitive to our students’ lives and experiences."

He cited a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows that 20 percent of children have had three or more adverse childhood experiences. Among those experiences are poverty; physical, emotional or sexual abuse; parental divorce or separation; an incarcerated member of the household; and household substance abuse. The CDC study showed that those traumatic conditions adversely affect how children’s brains develop physically.

For students to achieve “top-level thinking,” there must be stability in key areas: their need to achieve and be recognized; to belong and feel loved; to be safe and out of danger; and to have adequate nourishment and a place to sleep.

“If these needs are not being met, how can we expect a student, a child, to achieve a high level of critical thinking? They’re not going to be able to do that,” Fraley said.

To learn more about what students are facing outside of school, Dunkin borrowed Kyle Schwartz’s exercise, “I Wish My Teacher Knew.” Horace Mann students shared with Dunkin traumatic circumstances they face at home, including neglect, abuse, parental substance abuse and fears of abandonment. Dunkin noted that students only share what they are comfortable with and that she used the information to develop lessons for social-emotional learning. Anonymous student responses were shared in the presentation.

“The hardest part about this is the kids have seen these things,” Dunkin said. “They told me everything and I just wrote it down.”

Fraley said the best way to start addressing students’ and families’ needs is simply to ask: Is there anything going on that we can help you with? He said some people are just waiting for an opening to make a plea for help.

In addition, students need to feel that their teachers have high expectations, that they truly care about their students and believe they can and will achieve.

In the photo: Horace Mann Elementary Principal Dr. Todd Fraley addresses the Sedalia 200 district board during its July 24 meeting at the school. Fraley and Counselor Amy Dunkin explained how awareness to trauma in students' lives has created opportunities to provide support to help those children succeed.