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Surviving Urban and Domestic Warfare: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children

May 19, 2008
By: Worcester State University News

Sue Foo (Education) noticed a trend in the reports her graduate students were submitting in her special education classes. These students, who teach in elementary, middle and high schools, were identifying behavior problems they called post-traumatic stress disorders.

“Children diagnosed with PTSD, which is a medical diagnosis, are being placed in special education,” Foo said of her graduate students’ examples. “They’re not getting the help they need because those teachers don’t have enough information to provide the needed support services.”

Indeed, this sort of help isn’t something that is part of the special education teacher’s curriculum.

Foo’s 2007-08 mini-grant, “PTSD: Hidden Burden in Schools,” is her attempt to address that.

She first surveyed her former students who are now special education teachers and counselors throughout Worcester County. She crafted eight questions to find out what they knew about PTSD in their classrooms. She learned that they’ve heard of PTSD, but they don’t know much about it.

Her respondents said that they saw certain behaviors, but they did not know the underlying reasons for those behaviors. A child can be dealing with flashbacks, for example, and the teacher doesn’t seem able to help.

Some of these PTSD-diagnosed children have experienced physical abuse. Others have been sexually abused and are in foster care. Still others have witnessed violence. Each child requires special treatment in terms of the specific trauma.

“Most often, these children are medicated as a way to deal with their behavior problems,” Foo said.

So far, she has not discovered any place in Worcester that has the expertise to deal effectively with PTSD-related classroom problems.

“There’s lots more data about Iraq war veterans,” Foo said, “and very little about PTSD and children.”

Furthermore, it’s hard to know whether interventions used for adults will be effective for children.

Last fall, as part of her mini-grant project, Foo participated in a two-day workshop, “New Frontiers in Trauma Treatment,” to learn more about PTSD.

This spring, she is organizing focus groups with teachers and school counselors to find out what they know about PTSD, how they deal with it and what kind of help they need to address it.

From there, she hopes to be able to provide workshop help for special education teachers who have in their classrooms children diagnosed with PTSD. She may also design a new course to help teachers help these children.

The extent of the problem is not fully known. But it is growing.

“We’re also seeing children diagnosed with PTSD in regular classrooms,” Foo said. “These children are referred to the school counselor when their academic performance drops.”

Their PTSD gets labeled a “disorder,” so that the children can get some help. They wind up in special education services. And, as Foo notes, they’re not getting any help there either.

She hopes to change that.

Written by Barbara Zang, Ph.D.

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