How a teacher strike could affect students who have experienced trauma
January 25, 2019
According to media reports, a teacher strike in Denver is a very real possibility. A strike will bring with it special implications for the students who are involved in the child welfare system, most of whom have experienced the trauma of abuse or neglect. If a walkout takes place, human services professionals should be prepared to support the unique needs of child welfare-involved students during the strike.
Below is a list of issues that could arise for these students. Being aware and prepared to respond is an important part of our work to keep Colorado’s children safe.
Children and youth who have experienced any type of family separation may still carry signs and symptoms of that trauma through their everyday lives. When a teacher leaves the classroom for an extended period of time, this experience could echo the loss of parents or other caregivers, and this reminder of past trauma can have emotional and behavioral effects for kids. Refreshing on trauma-informed approaches can help workers and providers better support children and youth in the event that a walkout triggers a trauma response.
Difficulty in relationships with adults
Children and youth with a history of out-of-home placements sometimes have difficulty trusting and connecting with adults. Even if they do not experience a trauma response, some children and youth may experience a walkout with a sense of betrayal or abandonment. This experience could not only affect the child’s emotions and behaviors in school, but also spill over into relationships with caregivers, caseworkers, and other significant adults in their lives. Child Welfare workers and providers should be prepared to respond appropriately if students have this experience, being patient with students’ emotions and behaviors and taking extra time to demonstrate that they are engaged and available.
Decreased support at school
Denver Public Schools is working hard to increase hiring and incentives for substitute teachers in order to keep schools open during the strike. Substitute teachers, however, are unlikely to have the specialized training that a classroom teacher brings to the table. Substitute teachers may not have expertise in classroom management, special education needs, or productive responses to student behaviors. Because child welfare-involved children and youth are more likely than their peers to have special emotional, behavioral, and academic needs, this difference may affect them more than other students. Furthermore, support staff who have been extra sources of support in the past —school counselors, social workers, paraprofessionals, etc.— may not be as available during a walkout because of the increased need for support school-wide. Child welfare professionals and providers should be prepared for the possibility that school may not be the same supportive environment that it has been in the past.
Increased stress for caregivers and providers
The experience of supporting a child in out-of-home placement may become more difficult in the event of a teacher’s strike. If schools remain open, the changes at school may affect behaviors at home. In the event that schools close due to the walkout, caregivers will face additional stress related to seeking or providing supervision during the school day. Some providers also use the time when students are at school as much-needed respite from the demands of caregiving and supervision, and other respite options may be necessary. Be aware of any extra support or resources that might be available to offer providers during this time.
Changes in reporting and risk
Substitute teachers may be new to the role of mandatory reporter. This difference may affect the volume of referrals, and will affect how well a mandatory reporter knows a child’s caregivers and usual behaviors. Hotline and intake workers should be prepared for this difference in reporting during a strike in order to respond appropriately. Stress is also likely to increase at home during a strike, especially if schools close for an extended period of time. Families who are already high risk may be facing additional stressors related to childcare and supervision, which could affect safety at home. We also know that founded reports of child abuse increase at times when children are out of school and therefore away from mandatory reporters. For professionals who are working with high-risk families, be prepared to offer additional support during the walkout in order to assure continued safety at home.
Samantha Garrett, LSW, firstname.lastname@example.org, is the education specialist at the Colorado Department of Human Services Division of Child Welfare who serves as the primary subject matter expert on these issues for the Department.