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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Teaching Reading to Students Who Experience Trauma

January 16, 2023

Teacher question: I’m interested in whether personal grief trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) affect reading comprehension or learning to read. Over the years, I have had students who have lost parents or siblings, and some who are witnesses to (or victims of violence). What does research say about these students’ reading ability and what should we be doing to make sure they learn to read as well as possible?

Shanahan’s response:

You’re not the only one who has wondered about this.

Researchers, educators, researchers, and lawyers have all taken a swing at it — conducting correlational studies, crafting potentially valuable instructional responses, and filing lawsuits.

My overall sense of the best thinking on this?

The research indicates that traumatic events can have an impact on children’s (and adults’) ability to learn, including their ability to learn reading. For instance, a study (Duplechain, Reigner, & Packard, 2008) surveyed students (grade 2-5) and correlated the results to three years of reading scores. “Results suggested that violence exposure had an adverse effect on reading scores,” and the greater the amount of such exposure, the lower the achievement. Those results are provocative but other studies contradict the results, reporting no such link with reading achievement (Attar, Guerra & Tolan, 1994) or for academic achievement generally (Overstreet & Braun, 1999; Rosenthal & Wilson, 2003).

Trauma is a problem because it can affect memory, cognition, attention, and abilities to organize and process information. It can also disrupt schooling and increase absences. However, the variations in the types and degrees of trauma and in the resilience of those who experience trauma are so great as to make outcomes unpredictable. In other words, even severe trauma won’t necessarily hamper someone’s learning. There is so much individual variation both in the traumatic events and in students that one cannot be sure whose learning will be disrupted.  

The difficulty of understanding this complex problem is compounded by the severe limits on the amount of research. Think about it: how many children will lose a parent each year and what are the chances that a researcher will identify enough to conduct a powerful study? Even in situations where many children appear to experience the same tragedy, like a school shooting, there will likely be great differences in the impact of the event. One child might have observed the occurrence while another observed it and seemed to be an intended target; one child may be a close friend of a victim, and another might not know him/her at all. Research can sort out such differences, but it does this by examining the variation in large samples of subjects — and, again, that is unlikely.

Further complicating things are individual differences. Two siblings may lose a parent and respond in completely different ways. Some of this difference has to do with age but some kids are just more resilient than others.

Basically, it seems clear that trauma can sometimes interfere with learning — and the greater the trauma and the longer it goes on, the greater the risk. But it’s certainly not a slam dunk. Sadly, far too many kids live through traumatic events, and yet some can withstand heroically those stresses.

The educators and psychologists most expert in this have tended to emphasize more general educational supports than anything specific about the teaching of reading. That is, they promote “trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive teaching”. Things like welcoming school environments, positive discipline, bereavement counseling, mental health supports, facilitation of the expression of feelings, and the fostering of a sense of safety and personal control.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t any research showing the effectiveness of any of these when it comes to reading achievement, but they all seem appropriate, and they make sense to me. If my kids or grandkids experienced trauma, I’d appreciate it if their teachers tried to provide such positive environments, but I know of no convincing evidence showing that this will necessarily facilitate academic learning. It is more a hope than a proven fact.

Lawyers have gone so far as to sue a school district (Peter P. v. Compton Unified School District, 2015), demanding that it provide such educational supports to students exposed to violence and loss, family disruptions, incarceration, the foster system, racism, and discrimination. Their legal argument was that students who have experienced such trauma should be considered to have disabilities. I don’t believe that case ended up with a final verdict, as the school district agreed to provide such supports without a court order.

Peter, the boy named in the case, was no stranger to trauma. He had been exposed to violence on more than 20 occasions. Other students in the case had similar experiences. It should not be surprising that a judge might find it plausible — even with the contradictory evidence noted — that Peter and his peers may have been affected by so much trauma and that it would be perfectly reasonable for schools to try to minimize the problem. As the severity of cases increases, the chances of a negative outcome would seem to rise.

Where does that leave us?

Let me point out one of my favorite studies of all time (Robinson, 1946); memory tells me this was her doctoral dissertation. Helen Robinson identified a sample of struggling readers and then tested the hell out of these kids. She didn’t do the testing herself, but hired the services of a social worker, a psychiatrist, a pediatrician, a neurologist, three ophthalmologists, a speech and language specialist, an otolaryngologist, an endocrinologist, a reading specialist, a psychologist, and a reading technician (I don’t remember what that one is). Man, did they look thoroughly at those children, considering pretty much everything they knew of at the time. Of course, there weren’t MRI scans or genetic screenings in those days, but the results were interesting.

First, kids were amazingly resilient. Few problems identified by these various experts were consistently related to low reading ability. Vision problems, endocrinal imbalances, disruptive illnesses, environmental stressors, and so on, all thought at the time to be potential sources of disability were again and again found not to be related to the severity of the children’s reading problems.

Second, the children who struggled the most with reading tended not to suffer from a particular problem but from a confluence of difficulties. Your father might be abusive, but you could still learn to read. You might have trouble seeing the blackboard, but you still could learn to read. You could be receiving less than stellar instruction, and yep, you could still make progress.

But, as the number of these anomalies and challenges increased, students’ resilience was undermined. The kids with the most severe cases of reading disability, suffered from the greatest numbers of difficulties. You might be able to overcome some social or emotional challenge (like trauma), but your success in accomplishing that would be less likely if you also needed glasses and were getting inappropriate instruction at your school.  

I suspect trauma likely works the same way.

There might be some kids who go off the rails specifically because of PTSD, but there are many more for whom PTSD is just ODTAA ... “one darned thing after another” that undermines learning.

The kid who has a genetic predisposition to struggle with reading (learning disabilities tend to have genetic roots), whose parents haven’t done much to support language and literacy progress prior to school entry, who is enrolled in a class where the teacher doesn’t do a very good job teaching reading, and who then experiences trauma may very well be crushed academically by the horrific experience. Another child suffering the same trauma may continue to succeed in school, with barely any interruption.

Confirming this idea is a study that suggests that children with learning disabilities tend to be especially sensitive to trauma (Marks, Norton, Mesite, Fox, & Christodoulou, 2022). That means Robinson is right — kids already suffering from limited learning due to disability (and I presume to poverty, racism, and neglect) are the ones likely to be most unsettled academically by grief, abuse, violence, and so on.

What all this means is:

1.Trauma can be disruptive of learning for at least some children.

2. Educators should assume that kids who experience trauma may benefit from trauma-sensitive schooling. Making sure these students feel safe and included can be beneficial in keeping them in school regularly.

3.Being sensitive does not mean teachers should back down from teaching reading to these children — remember trauma does not necessarily interfere with learning but reducing instruction in the name of sympathy certainly will. In fact, keeping kids academically engaged has been found to help keep these students connected to their environment in positive ways (Mullins & Panlilio, 2021).

4. There is no special reading curriculum or way of teaching reading that will facilitate that has been proposed or proven to provide special benefits to these kids. Sound responses to the trauma problem tend to be more general kinds of things that make kids feel protected, valued, safe, in control, and supported.

What matters in the teaching of reading is the amount of reading instruction, the content of reading instruction, and the quality of reading instruction. Making sure that every child — including those who suffer trauma — receive enough teaching, focused on essential reading skills and abilities, and with sufficient quality to encourage maximum learning is the right prescription. All kids benefit from that, but it is especially important for kids who have challenges of various kinds. Reading instruction itself should not be one of the challenges that kids with PTSD or other disorders must surmount to succeed. Reading teachers need to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

Selected comments

Comment from Ann C.

Good readers are all the same, every struggling reader is struggling in their own way. (Apologies to Tolstoy.)

I appreciate you addressing this topic. Trauma and response are individual. Some children are traumatized by repeated school failure and the resulting exclusion from the teacher’s good graces. This lowers their social status and causes further trauma and exclusion by their peers. This is trauma we can prevent. One safe space, one nurturing adult, one successful learning experience after the next, has more power than research can measure.

Comment from Amy S.

Ann C raises a very real issue. What are your thoughts and is there research about the trauma students experience because of poor reading instruction and subsequent repeated school failure? From elementary, to middle, to HS, there can be a slow erosion of struggling readers' self esteem, social exclusion and a descent within in the educational system class hierarchy/track. In my experience, the trauma at school is real. Is there research on this? Is there increased anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicide rates among who struggle to read and who do not receive early informed/adequate intervention? Thanks for any information and/or a future blog post on the topic.

Response from Tim Shanahan

Ann and Amy —

Failure can definitely be traumatizing

Failure can definitely be traumatizing — more to some than others. Reading failure is particularly profound for school age kids because of its importance to the adults, its centrality to schooling, and it is quite public in a classroom (everyone can recognize the degree of failure).

A friend of mine, Roger Weissberg, who conducted lots of research on social-emotional learning, used to tell me that the most powerful thing we could do for social emotional learning was to make sure that we succeeded in teaching the child to read. It is possible that continued failure in Tier 2 and 3 instruction can be even more devastating because it can appear to the students that "everything is being done and I'm still failing — I must really be stupid." It is important that we give every child the best chance of success that we can... which is why I believe in maximizing the number hours devoted to teaching reading, spread that time over a greater number of years so that pressure can be reduced, teach all the skills and abilities that research indicates can improve learning, and instruct in the ways that research has identified are likely to be most effective. And — something that I don't write about much but did here in this piece — this should be done in the most supportive, positive environment we can provide (safe, welcoming, supportive, caring, loving, communicative, etc.).

— Tim

Comment from Mary

As a teacher of adult ESL students who have fled countries due to genocide, war, violence, and other reasons, I have had to be judicious about my reading content and topics for discussion. I had one student cry in class talking about leaving Burma because of the genocide. I have students from Ukraine, one was a soldier who witnessed firsthand the terrors of war. Another student and his son were confined to our border cages after fleeing his country, which has the most violence in South America. I have really wrestled with this topic about reading instruction. Their children are in our public schools and definitely need mental health services too.

References

De Bellis, M. D., Hooper, S. R., Spratt, E. G., & Woolley, D. P. (2009). Neuropsychological findings in childhood neglect and their relationships to pediatric PTSD. Journal of International Neuropsychological Society, 15(6), 868-878.

Duplechain, R., Reigner, R., & Packard, A. (2008). Striking differences: The impact of moderate and high trauma on reading achievement. Reading Psychology, 29, 117-136. DOI: 10.1080/02702710801963845

Goodman, R. D., Miller, M. D., West-Olatunji, C. A. (2012). Traumatic stress, socioeconomic status, and academic achievement among primary school students. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 4(3), 252-259. doi:10.1037/a0024912

Marks, R. A., Norton, R. T., Mesite, L, Fox, A. B., & Christodoulou, J. A. (2022). Risk and resilience correlates of reading among adolescents with language-based learning disabilities during COVID-19. Reading and Writing. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-022-10361-8

McGrew, S. L. (2019). Examining the impact of trauma on reading performance among elementary students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Mississippi State University.

Mullins, C. A., & Panlilio C.C. (2021). Exploring the mediating effect of academic engagement on math and reading achievement for students who have experienced maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 117. doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2021.105048

Opiola, K. K., Alston, D. M., & Copeland-Kamp, B. (2020). The effectiveness of training and supervising urban elementary school teachers in child–teacher relationship training: A trauma-informed approach. Professional School Counseling, 23(1), 11. doi.org:https://doi.org/10.1177/2156759X19899181

Peter P. v. Compton Unified School District. (2015). Retrieved from http://media.wix.com/ugd/29cec4_4d7cb86b540e4b0e8b5671ce4c8e7137.pdf

Read, S., Papakosta-Harvey, V., & Bower, S. (2000). Using workshops on loss for adults with learning disabilities. Groupwork: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Working with Groups, 12(2), 6-26.

Robinson, H. M. (1946). Why pupils fail in reading. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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"I feel the need of reading. It is a loss to a man not to have grown up among books." —

Abraham Lincoln