- The National Education Association (NEA) recognizes that childhood experiences related to domestic abuse, trauma or divorce affect education. This article includes recommendations for teachers, family members or other adults who might advocate for a student who needs more help due to challenging life circumstances.
- Researchers agree that a trauma-sensitive approach to special education can be critical and urge schools to approach discipline with caution in order to avoid re-traumatizing students.
- After a divorce, both parents participate in educational decisions unless the divorce decree or another court action specifically removes a parent’s rights. This article includes tips for navigating those circumstances. A parenting plan that designates a primary parent for school interactions is one idea.
- Schools can accommodate survivors of domestic abuse to help them participate safely in the special education process for their children. Alternative meeting spaces are among ideas further described below.
Students who experience trauma often have a rough time staying emotionally stable and keeping their behavior on track for learning at school. Research about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) lists many childhood conditions that impact a person’s lifelong health and access to opportunities. High on the list are trauma from domestic abuse and divorce. For many families, complex trauma includes both.
A child’s response to trauma may look like disobedience or lack of motivation. A family member or teacher might notice that a child is regressing. A student may have delays in social communication or emotional regulation–skills schools teach in an emerging area of education called Social Emotional Learning. Some children survive severe distress but don’t demonstrate obvious changes in behavior or disrupt the classroom. In all cases, figuring out what’s happened and how to help requires a thoughtful, individualized process.
A family member, school employee or any concerned adult can respond by seeking an evaluation to determine whether the student has a disability and qualifies for services delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 plan.
Note: Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects individuals with a disabling condition that impact a “major life activity.” An article on PAVE’s website further describes Section 504 and the differences between a 504 Plan and an IEP. PAVE also provides comprehensive articles and on-demand webinars about special education process, the IDEA, evaluation, and other topics listed under Learning in School at wapave.org.
A behavioral or emotional disability that significantly impacts access to learning can qualify a student for an IEP under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) if the student demonstrates a need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). Among the IDEA’s 14 qualifying categories of disability are Emotional Disturbance, which captures a variety of behavioral health conditions, and Other Health Impairment, which sometimes captures conditions related to attention deficit, anxiety or depression. A child who isn’t found to have a qualifying disability might benefit from a behavior support plan or counseling services at school.
Supporting and educating students with trauma histories has become a priority for the National Education Association (NEA), with a specific focus on students who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence, sexual abuse and related traumas.
The problems are widespread: More than half of women who experience domestic violence have children younger than 12, and data indicate that nearly half of those children witnessed the abuse.
Response to a child’s symptoms may be complicated by cultural considerations: Some cultures may be more accepting of abuse, less trusting of authorities or afraid of the fallout within the community. An agency in Washington that helps when multicultural issues create barriers is Open Doors for Multicultural Families.
Best Practice Strategies to Help
On its website, the NEA offers an article: Best practices for supporting and educating students who have experienced domestic violence or sexual victimization. The article provides strategies to support traumatized students. Here is a summary of some points:
- Provide structure, a sense of security and a safety plan: “Children who experience abuse often yearn for structure and predictability.”
- Help students understand available support and the teacher’s role as a mandated reporter: “The larger the number of people available to listen to a student, the more likely that student is to disclose abuse.”
- Validate and reassure the student: “Provide non-judgmental, validating statements if a student discloses information. Sample statements include That must have been scary or It must be difficult to see that happening.”
- Identify triggers of anxiety or challenging behavior: “…be prepared for negative emotions and behaviors from the student in response to triggers.”
- Use a daily Check In to provide a solid foundation for relationship building: “It can be helpful to use pictures or a rating scale to help students identify and label their emotional states.”
- Directly teach problem solving skills: “Be honest with students about how you’re feeling and talk through your actions in response to challenging situations.”
Domestic Abuse is Common
Understanding the nature and prevalence of domestic abuse can grow compassion, combat stigma and promote shared problem-solving. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), defines domestic violence as “willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.”
Acts of domestic violence can be physical, sexual, threatening, emotional or psychological. Statistically, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience some form of domestic violence; its prevalence is noted among all people regardless of age, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality.
How to Notice Something is Wrong
When domestic abuse impacts a child’s access to education, figuring out how to help requires thoughtful consideration. The NEA describes specific characteristics of children who have experienced trauma and how their ability to function is compromised. Here is a summary from NEA’s article:
- Children may find it hard to explain their emotional reactions to situations and events.
- They may appear inattentive or hyperactive—or fluctuate between both.
- Loud or busy activities can trigger a confusing reaction: a child might lose control about something that is usually a favorite.
- Children may have “disordered social skills,” playing inappropriately or lacking typical boundaries.
- They may withdraw socially or try to control situations in ways that seem rude or look like bullying.
- They might develop “friendships” based on negativity and be unable to develop high-quality, appropriate friends.
- Children impacted by trauma may be mentally overwhelmed and struggle to follow directions or shift from one activity to another, even with prompting. (Adults may mislabel these cognitive inabilities as deliberate or defiant behaviors.)
- Children may overly depend on others but struggle to ask for help.
- An impaired working memory can make it difficult for the child to start or finish a task, pay attention and/or concentrate.
Evaluate with Trauma in Mind
The Federation for Children with Special Needs provides a downloadable article called Trauma Sensitivity During the IEP Process. The article provides suggestions for making the evaluation process trauma sensitive and includes this statement:
“By becoming aware that violence may be at the heart of many of the child’s learning and behavioral difficulties, school personnel may be able to mitigate much of the lasting impact of trauma.”
The federation urges schools to approach discipline with caution in order to avoid re-traumatizing students and encourages use of the Functional Behavioral Assessment tool and a framework of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS):
“Self-regulation describes the ability of a child to ‘put the brakes on’ in times of emotional stress. Traumatized children are hyper-aroused; they view their world as dangerous and unpredictable and they are prepared to react in a moment’s notice, usually in inappropriate (and possibly unsafe) ways…IEP Team Meeting members can go a long way towards ameliorating this hyper-arousal by asking for Functional Behavioral Assessments to ascertain the reason for the inappropriate reactions as well as ways to replace the behaviors with better coping skills and strategies.”
A trauma-informed approach at school meetings can help the team figure out why unexpected behaviors happen or why academic progress seems so hard to achieve. Promoting healthy relationships by designing intentional time with trusted adults and developing a creative strategy for Social Emotional Learning (SEL) at school are strategies the team can discuss. A trauma-informed approach, the federation contends, “encourages educators to ask, What happened to you? instead of What’s wrong with you?”
When Divorce Complicates Work with the School
Another domestic issue that sometimes complicates circumstances for families navigating special education is divorce. The US Department of Education stresses that parents or legal guardians are decision-makers for their children. Whether parents are married or separated, they both are equal decision-makers in special education process unless the divorce decree or another court action specifically removes that right.
A parenting plan can be written with specific instructions about which parent is the educational decision maker.
The school needs a copy of the parenting plan in order to follow it. Without a plan in place, either parent who shares joint legal custody can sign an educational document that requires parental consent, even if the student lives full time with only one parent. Parental rights include access to records and educational information about the student. A non-custodial parent has the right to be informed of meetings and attend meetings.
Parents with joint custody who share parenting decisions may want to draft an agreement with the school to specify how the child’s time is divided and which parent is responsible for specific days, activities or meetings.
Schools Can Offer Safe Space
If one partner has been abused and there is no restraining order to prevent the non-custodial parent from attending school meetings, schools can accommodate the domestic abuse survivor by offering a separate meeting in a different space, at a separate time.
If a parent is bound by a restraining order, the IEP team will need to determine whether the order limits access to the school building and whether the order specifies that the parent has lost rights under the IDEA. If the order limits building access, but does not limit IDEA rights, then that parent has the right to attend a meeting in another space or by phone. A restraining order might include “no contact” with the child, and the meeting must ensure that the child’s safe distance from the parent is protected.
Visit the following websites for additional information:
Access Rights of Parents of Students Eligible for Special Education (Washington State)
Best practices for supporting and educating students who have experienced domestic violence or sexual victimization.
In the Best Interests of the Child: Individualized Education Program (IEP) Meetings When Parents Are In Conflict (PDF)
Divorce: It Can Complicate Children’s Special Education Issues
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Trauma Sensitivity During the IEP Process (PDF)
Trauma Informed Schools Resources (OSPI)