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In Kids & Family Commentary

The Sierra Guyton shooting last week and similar tragedies are taking a toll on Milwaukee's youth.

Chronic trauma a serious concern for Milwaukee's children

When 10-year-old Sierra Guyton was shot May 21 on the playground of Clarke Street School, she rightly became the focus of the day's news and several news cycles thereafter.

But there were other victims of the gunfire that evening – other children on the playground, for example, and neighbors living near the school. While none of them took a bullet, all of them suffered an acute trauma.

And most them are actually suffering a more chronic trauma: the near-constant state of worry and fear that accompanies living in one of the city's more dangerous neighborhoods.

"You just close your eyes and duck," one resident told reporters, explaining how the neighborhood deals with guns and gunfire. That resident was dropping children off at a day care near the school. "We just hit the floor," another resident said, describing the reaction she and her young grandson had to the gunfire that evening.

These children – not just the ones who find their cousin's body on the playground, but the ones growing up around the gunfire, the ones learning to duck or to hit the floor on a regular basis – these are as much victims of trauma as Sierra Guyton was.

It is sometimes difficult, as a teacher of urban children, for me to explain why it is that so many of my students fail to thrive in school the way some peers do, or the way almost all their suburban counterparts do. Trauma – chronic, ongoing, severe trauma – is one of the biggest reasons.

I'd never really thought about this until I read Paul Tough's book "How Children Succeed," where he gets into the research. He says that people who grow up in environments with many adverse experiences – there's an "ACE scale" to measure these things – are much more likely to have problems as adults, from addictions to criminal records to health issues. This is because as they grow up in those traumatic environments, the constant stress has an effect on physical and neurological development.

Imagine a situation in your life where you were under stress – a job interview, a deadline, some kind of public speaking situation, a near-miss car accident. You know the feeling that comes with that stress: Your pulse races, your mouth goes dry, your breathing speeds up and your muscles twitch from the adrenaline. These are all caused by a physiological process preparing you for, as you probably learned in school, fight or flight, the body's natural response to stressful stimuli.

Now imagine growing up where you feel that way all the time, where far too often you have to "close your eyes and duck" or "hit the floor" because there's a shooting in your neighborhood. Or imagine the other situations that lead to high scores on the ACE scale, many of which are the result of or highly correlated to poverty, things like feeling that you don't have food to eat or clean clothes to wear, living with someone with addiction or mental illness or having family members in prison. This trauma – and the stress-response that goes with it – is with you every day.

In his book, Tough writes, "The part of the brain most affected by stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school. When you're overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it's hard to learn the alphabet."

Which is not to say that childhood trauma and high ACE scores cannot be overcome. I've taught gunshot victims who now lead happy lives, for example, and many Milwaukee children come out of the stressful situations of their childhoods and generally do okay.

But every time there is a shooting like the one at Clarke Street School, every day that our city's children see addiction and crime around them, every month that it remains impossible for African American men in this city to find good jobs, every year that endemic levels of poverty grow deeper in our neighborhoods, it gets that much more difficult for our children to be successful in school. As long as we continue to allow chronic trauma to pollute Milwaukee, its children will continue to fail.


fetlarpo | May 27, 2014 at 6:10 p.m. (report)

Good article on insight of child development. There is a lot of money to be made in selling drugs. I am keeping an eye on Colorado to see the repercussions of legalizing weed. The incentive to make big bucks must go away to save lives.

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