What Educators Don’t See: The Relationship Between Complex Trauma and School Interruption

By Tricia Stephens, ilberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, What Educators Don’t See: The Relationship Between Complex Trauma and School Interruption

Mothers of color affected[1] by the Child Welfare System (CWS) experience high rates of exposure to events where their lives or physical/psychological integrity are challenged (Blakey & Hatcher, 2013; Chemtob, Griffing, Tullberg, Roberts & Ellis, 2011). Like many women, exposure to these events, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, occurs within the context of close interpersonal relationships where escape may be experienced as impossible (Silove et al., 2017), resulting in a phenomenon frequently referred to as complex trauma (Cloitre et al., 2009).

Here, I explore the multilayered relationship between complex trauma and school interruption for CWS-affected mothers of color living in an urban center and consider the implications for educators and policymakers. School interruption is defined in this context as the abrupt departure from formal school-based learning settings prior to the attainment of a high school diploma. The results of a qualitative study of twenty formerly CWS-affected mothers of color are used to understand the relationship between complex trauma and school interruption, exploring the ways in which this interruption sets the stage for a cycle of economic struggle and the vulnerability commonly associated with that struggle. A full description of the sample, study methods and findings are forthcoming from this author in an article currently under review.

Most of the mothers in the study experienced some level of educational interruption during their youth. Three of the twenty dropped out of school before graduating high school and never continued while three mothers completed their high school equivalent/GED later in their lives. Eleven mothers had some college credits or their associate degree while three completed their undergraduate studies or higher.

Examples of the Relationship Between Complex Trauma and School Interruption

Mothers identified their emotional difficulties, stemming from coping with their exposures to multiple traumatic events, as adversely affecting their school performance. Whether due to concerns for their safety, behavioral acting out, or inattention as a consequence of roiling internal emotions that accompanied their sustained exposure to traumatic events, mothers found the task of sitting quietly and attentively in a classroom challenging. For instance, one mother who described herself as a good student had a sharp decline in her grades as a result of her home environment, which included exposure to severe domestic violence between her parents and her own abuse at the hands of her father. School quickly became a secondary concern for her as she needed to try to remain safe within her home and to plan her escape. She eventually fled her home and was hidden by one of her brothers and a friend for several weeks in a makeshift hideaway in the basement of her building before leaving her home and her family altogether. Schools are currently not equipped to address the experiences described by this mother. To her teachers, she may have seemed to be slipping in her grades, inattentive or in the worst-case scenario viewed as ‘just another dropout’. In reality, her world required a focus on her immediate survival, which did not include daily school attendance. This is an example of the need for teacher training in trauma-informed education models. Although teachers are required to complete two hours training on identification and reporting of suspected child abuse and maltreatment, this level of training is not sufficient, as this case demonstrated. The system failed her.

The short and long-term consequences of mothers’ educational interruption were profound. Without the structure of school, mothers were forced into the real world very quickly, which included having romantic relationships that resulted in unplanned pregnancies. The earliest age of pregnancy noted among the twenty mothers was 14 years-old. Introducing a baby into an already complicated picture meant that mothers often had to delay any planned return to school in order to provide for their new arrivals. Educational interruption also meant that mothers had limited prospects of obtaining employment that paid them a living wage. Lacking access to stable and sufficient income, housing instability quickly followed, with mothers becoming internal migrants, in search of employment and housing that could sustain them and their children. Their lives were also complicated by relationships that often included violence. Some of these factors contributed to mothers becoming involved with CWS themselves. Without the foundational tool of education, achieving sustainable living conditions became exponentially more difficult for mothers and frequently lengthened their interactions with CWS.

Policy and Practice Implications

The high rate of school interruption for this group of mothers did not accurately reflect their belief in the power of education. Notwithstanding significant obstacles and given both opportunity and access, 17 of the 20 mothers eventually went on to complete at least a high school equivalency as adults. It is worth noting that the three mothers who did not continue their education had survived the most harrowing conditions of complex trauma documented in the study. Overall, mothers viewed education as key to self-improvement and held this value for their children as well. Thus, the commonly reported low rates of education attainment among CWS-affected mothers tells a partial story and perpetuates the stereotype of the “irresponsible undereducated mother of color” who perhaps deserves CWS involvement. Child Welfare System-affected mothers had complicated lives, frequently needing to navigate daily survival, that interrupted their education. However, this interruption did not shake their belief in the value of education.

Understanding the realities faced by many of our most vulnerable students, like CWS-affected mothers, is a daunting task. However, trauma-informed education models like those proposed by Bragin and Bragin (2010) recognize the impact of trauma on students in the classroom and hold the potential to retain those students against extreme odds. It is important for educators to be aware of the many challenges to school persistence among the CWS affected mothers including:

  • Exposure to multiple traumatic events
  • Safety Issues
  • Pregnancy
  • Housing Instability
  • Income and Employment Needs

Furthermore, trauma informed models of intervention can help to address the cycle of school interruption, including:

  • Professional development for teachers on how to recognize and support students who show signs of trauma
  • Provide counseling support for social emotional needs
  • Following-up on absences and providing resources to continue school
  • Partnering with social service agencies to meet needs related to housing instability, income, employment needs

Expanding our view of who our students are and responding in a trauma-informed and caring manner that does not seek to blame or punish but instead seeks to understand “what happened to them” is essential to avoid repetition of the experiences these mothers had. It is important for us to recognize the complexities of the systemic and social contexts in which our students live and consider how we can intervene to prevent the cycles of school interruption for vulnerable populations.


Blakey, J. M., & Hatcher, S. S. (2013). Trauma and substance abuse among child welfare involved African American mothers: A case study. Journal of Public Child Welfare7(2), 194-216.

Bragin, M., & Bragin, G. (2010). Making meaning together: Helping survivors of violence and loss to learn at school. Journal of Infant Child & Adolescent Psychotherapy, 9(2), 89–109.

Chemtob, C.E., Griffing, S., Tullberg, E., Roberts, E. & Ellis, P. (2011). Screening for trauma exposure, and posttraumatic stress disorder and depression symptoms among mothers receiving child welfare preventive services. Child Welfare, 90(6), 109-127.

Cloitre, M., Stolbach, B. C., Herman, J. L., Kolk, B. V. D., Pynoos, R., Wang, J., & Petkova, E. (2009). A developmental approach to complex PTSD: Childhood and adult cumulative trauma as predictors of symptom complexity. Journal of Traumatic Stress22(5), 399-408.

Silove, D., Baker, J. R., Mohsin, M., Teesson, M., Creamer, M., O’Donnell, M., … & Bryant, R. (2017). The contribution of gender-based violence and network trauma to gender differences in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  PLoS One12(2), e0171879. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0171879

[1]The term child welfare affected is used to reflect the terminology used by mothers who indicate that contact with CWS is not compartmentalized but lingers, defining how they view their interactions with their children, family and community long after reunification. Contact with CWS ranges from the first call made that results in a visit to the home. This visit may result in a closure of the CWS case or a referral to Preventive Services all the way through out-of-home or foster care placement. Mothers use the term affected to underscore how impacted their lives are even after being reunified with their children or having a case closed.


This article is part of a series of faculty commentary around issues of equity and justice in education policy. Click here to read the full series.

Tricia Stephens, LCSW-R, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. She received her Ph.D. from New York University’s Silver School of Social Work. Fueled by a firm belief in the power and possibility of recovery and healing from exposure to trauma, Dr. Stephens’s current research is focused on documenting the effects of complex trauma in child welfare affected parents. She works closely with grass-roots and community-based organizations to translate her research into practice with implications for policy. Focusing on communities of color experiencing poverty, Dr. Stephens uses qualitative and mixed-methods research on both a local and a global scale to explore the social and mental health implications of exposure to trauma with an emphasis on using evidence-informed knowledge to improve outcomes for adults, children and their families.

The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.

Issues of Equity and Justice in Education Policy

As a follow-up to a May 2016 colloquium titled Intersections of Race and Class in Special Education Policy, subsequent Colloquium Summary Recommendations, and the Fall 2016 Roosevelt House Faculty Seminar Series we present a special issue of the Roosevelt House Faculty Journal titled Issues of Equity and Justice in Education Policy. Included in the issue are contributions of Hunter faculty and students whose scholarship examines racial diversity, equity, poverty, trauma, teacher quality, higher education, and the intersectionality of these themes.

Below are opinions submitted by Hunter College students, faculty and visiting scholars.

Series Introduction: Issues of Equity and Justice in Education Policy

By Jennifer F. Samson, Associate Professor & Acting Chair, Department of Special Education, Hunter College and Faculty Associate at Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College

Wendy Cavendish, Associate Professor, Department of Teaching and Learning, University of Miami and Roosevelt House Visiting Research Scholar


Special Education and Diploma Tracks in High School: Methods of (Re)Segregation and Inequality in Outcomes

By Wendy Cavendish, Associate Professor, Department of Teaching and Learning, University of Miami and Roosevelt House Visiting Research Scholar

Teaching at the Intersection of Race and Disability: A Special Education Department Reflects and (Re)Acts

By David Connor, Chairperson, Department of Special Education, Hunter College

The Role of Educators for Immigrant Communities in Political Upheaval: Understanding of Complex Social Realities

Jennifer F. Samson, Associate Professor & Acting Chair, Department of Special Education, Hunter College and Faculty Associate at Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College

By David Housel, Associate Director, CUNY Language Immersion Program and Chair, Curriculum Committee in the Division of Adult and Continuing Education, LaGuardia Community College

Melinda Snodgrass, Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education, Hunter College

  Preventing the Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline: Examining Preschool Discipline Policy Recommendations

By Chelsea T. Morris, Ph.D. student at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami

Rocking the Institutional Diversity Boat in Teacher Preparation

By Xuchilt Perez, Assistant Professor of Special Education at Hunter College

  What Educators Don’t See: The Relationship Between Complex Trauma and School Interruption

By Tricia Stephens, Assistant Professor, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College

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