Because, Not Despite: Rethinking the Trauma Narrative in Education

Colin Seale in the classroom

I recently had the privilege to speak with an audience of cabinet-level leaders at several innovative districts from across the country to get their guidance and feedback on thinkLaw’s approach to revolutionizing critical thinking. It was powerful to be pushed with tough questioning and affirmed by recognizing how issues like explicit bias limit opportunities for all students to access meaningful deeper learning experiences. But at one point, I surprised myself with an answer to what probably should have been a softball question.

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“This is so impressive. How did you do this?” The panelist wanted to know how I was able to pull this off when he realized that our work is impacting school systems in 17 states without any investment or any large grants or foundations backing us. I could have given some fancy answer about how my unique educational background as a computer science graduate with a Master’s in Public Administration who graduated at the top of my law school class gives me a special advantage in understanding how to impact change within large systems. Or I could have discussed how my professional background as an educator-turned child welfare reformer-turned attorney gave me a unique perspective on problem finding and problem solving in challenging organizations. But somehow, without hesitation, I responded, “because my father sold drugs.”

Silence took over the room. And even I realized that I had just said something shocking. But at the root of my statement was my concern over what might be an over-emphasis on trauma-informed education. We know that the tough situations our students face have a real impact on student achievement. Knowledge of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) are increasingly a focus of districts looking to give educators the requisite empathy and understanding to serve all children.

But what if focusing too much on the trauma hurts children even more? Whether we want to call it Mother Theresa syndrome or Pobrecito syndrome, educators sometimes believe that because some children have it so tough in life, we should excuse their academic struggles in school and lower our expectations. This is a guaranteed way to continue to traumatize our children. Especially because this notion ignores the fact that when our young people are living through the struggle and become successful, this success doesn’t occur despite all their pain and suffering in life. It happens because of it.

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Selling drugs was a criminal act, no doubt. But from another lens, it was really just a predictable outcome of what happens when you combine tremendous hustle and limited opportunity. The unwritten lessons I learned in brief moments with my father throughout childhood about networking, accessing credibility, and finding unique ways to stand out hard-wired me to be an innovator. My mom’s struggles financially taught me the literal meaning of making a dollar out of fifteen cents. Watching her optimize constraints and leverage resources to get dinner on the table gave me an unlimited sense of possibility. I am who I am today because, not despite the struggles I’ve overcome.

Any training on childhood trauma and its impact on student achievement must explicitly acknowledge the assets that our students gain from this struggle. The painfully familiar findings of TNTP’s Opportunity Myth report, which highlighted the fundamentally unfair practice of giving students in low-income communities below-grade level work on a regular basis, suggests that this wrong kind of love leads to inequitably low expectations for students. This is not to say that we should be blind to the very real challenges too many students face. But our understanding of their struggles must be matched with a mindset that embraces the inherent value of resilient children who show tremendous bravery in the face of unspeakable adversity.


  • Amanda Spletter / Reply

    Spot on – I attended one semester of a graduate licensure program for education to teach, and we were told to not expect our students to do homework.

    Needless to say, I couldn’t continue with that program.

  • David Hinkson / Reply

    Yes, everyone deserves a fair break regardless of what they have gone through, and “dumbing down” the curriculum to accommodate those from presumably challenging backgrounds does them no favors in the real world, just maintains the status quo that keeps them down another generation.

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