School-Related PTSD

The special needs school bus pulls up in front of our house. I take my 10-year old son Jalen by the hand to lead him to the bus. He resists. I tug harder and manage to half drag him out of the house. He yanks free and grabs onto the side of the house with both hands. I have to pry his hands free and pull him onto the bus and buckle him into his seat. He is crying, and I want to cry too. Shaken, I go back into the house. It takes me at least fifteen minutes to calm down.

BusesThis happened every single day.

When a child strongly protests against going to school, it’s a good idea to investigate rather than assume your child simply doesn’t want to leave the family nest or is just trying to avoid work.  This is particularly important if your child has limited communication skills. Jalen is diagnosed with severe cognitive disability and moderate autism.

Because of his deeply troubling experiences at school, I am also convinced he suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When we think about PTSD, we often think of combat soldiers or victims of violent crimes. But experts say that children who have witnessed or been on the receiving end of violence or other extremely upsetting events may also develop the disorder.

Jalen didn’t always have trouble with school.  When he was younger he went off to school with little or no protest.  But that was back when nothing much seemed to bother him. He also didn’t seem to be particularly attached to me, his dad, or other family members.

But a spurt in his emotional development led to some positive changes. He became affectionate and attentive and developed empathy. Thrilled with his progress, I had no idea how these changes would change his attitude toward school.

Angry KidBecause of the severity of his disabilities, Jalen attended a “self-contained” K-5 classroom which averaged about 10 kids, a teacher and six aides. His classmates all had very serious developmental or physical disabilities. Many had negative behaviors not often seen in the regular classroom, such as frequent screaming, crying or hitting.

Initially none of this seemed to bother Jalen.  But that changed as he became more tuned into the world around him. That’s when he started resisting going to school.

I asked Jalen’s teacher if she knew why he seemed to hate school so much. She told me he became frightened when other children screamed, cried, or hit. And he was particularly upset when another child had to be restrained.

“Jalen keeps hiding under the table crying,” she said. “We tried giving him earphones to block out some of the noise, but that didn’t work. We spend more time with him one-on-one time in the computer room next door, but he still hears what’s going on. He’s spending a lot of time in the bathroom to avoid being in the classroom.”

She suggested I spend a day in the classroom.

When I did, I could barely believe my eyes. Although some kids appeared cheerful, others had frequent tantrums. Kids determined to hit teachers and other students had to be restrained and escorted next door. One child emitted loud gurgling sounds and had to be suctioned to prevent her from choking on her own mucus. It wasn’t the kid’s fault – they were obviously struggling with their own issues. And the teacher and aides were wonderful, running all over the place trying to educate the children and put out small fires. Rather it was nature of the system that was the problem.

PTSDMy son just didn’t have the cognitive ability to understand what was going on and was clearly terrified. I watched him flinch and tremble at every loud sound.  And he did indeed dive under the table.  Even I was emotionally exhausted by the end of the day.

Finally I decided to home school him, and his teacher gave me her blessing. Unfortunately, school district administrators had a completely different reaction. They gave me all kinds of hell for pulling Jalen out of school, but I’m glad I did.

Jalen has flourished outside the special education environment. He’s now a healthy, happy 19-year-old — except when we’re in a public place where there are children and one of them has a meltdown. Then he becomes very frightened and/or angry. If he hears a mother speak sharply to her child, he angrily stares her down until we divert him or remove him from the scene.

Jalen clearly displays many PTSD symptoms listed by the National Institute of Health, and I’m convinced they stem from his disturbing school experiences. Self-contained classrooms can resemble mini-war zones, despite the best efforts of caring teachers and aides. And from what I’ve heard, the same can be true of adult group homes. I’ve decided that as long as Jalen’s lack of communication skills prevent him from describing what’s happening , I will not send him to school, a sheltered workshop or a group home. My older children have volunteered to make sure that never happens even after my husband and I are gone.

I’m sure Jalen isn’t the only person who has developed symptoms of PTSD after attending school under these conditions. The first thing we need to do is acknowledge that this kind of environment can lead to PTSD. Then, we need to minimize the chances of it happening in the future. Perhaps it isn’t such a good idea to put all of the children with the most severe disabilities in one classroom.

What is the solution? Homeschooling doesn’t work for everyone, and many parents can’t afford private schools or tutors. It’s important to advocate for change in the public school system itself.

At the very least, children who are sensitive to acting out behaviors should be placed in alternative classrooms far enough away to prevent them from hearing what’s going on other special needs classrooms. This may mean breaking the children into small groups of three or four, or mainstreaming kids without serious disruptive behaviors into a regular classroom with an aide.

These kinds of changes will cost money and require extra training, but in the end I believe we’d probably save money by preventing children from developing mental illnesses such as PTSD on top of their other disabilities.

What do you think? Please comment below.

One thought on “School-Related PTSD”

  1. I just realized this yesterday, that my 20 year old son could have PTSD from the self-contained classroom he was placed in for his elementary years. This morning I googled that sentence and your blog popped up. Your son, and the classroom environment he was in, sounds very similar to my son. I wish I could have acted on this years ago. So frustrating.

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