Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Youth Experiencing Trauma: Searching for Insights into School-Level Policy and Practice

Students in the classroom, Alvin Trusty, 2012, Modified http://www.flicker.com/photos/trustypics/6844460861.

Students in the classroom, Alvin Trusty, 2012, Modified 

By Dr. Melinda Lemke

Published August 27, 2018

Each time we enter our research site, teachers and students welcome and seek to help us feel at home within a well-established community that is flourishing behind old school doors. Warm, inviting faces fill the halls, wherein school leadership and staff seek to uplift students who have escaped economic destitution, identity-based violence, and war to resettle as refugees in the United States. Given the school mission and established programming, more recently staff also work to address the needs of an influx of Puerto Rican students displaced because of Hurricane Maria.

“Given the social and emotional needs of displaced students, ultimately we wanted to understand what one school was doing to assist students who have experienced trauma, what supports were working or needed, and how as researchers, we might lend critical, community-grounded, and evidence-driven support.”
Melinda Lemke, Assistant Professor
Educational Policy and Leadership

As evidenced from school murals, signs, and student work hanging in classrooms, teachers employ culturally and identity sensitive, as well as trauma-informed methodologies within and outside of the classroom setting. Everyone seemingly is placed on equal footing in what might be described as a real life “model U.N.” Despite learning about the inhumanity that students and their families endured prior to, and sadly often after arriving in the United States, theirs is an intentionally created atmosphere of resilience and joy. Surely, no educational organization is without flaw; however, this school is a small refuge in a current political environment that has been hostile to migrants and asylum-seeking children who constitute an estimated 68.5 million globally displaced persons (UNHCR, 2017).

A corpus of policy, sociological, and social research has examined the legal, experiential dynamics, and implications of displacement within the U.S. Yet, while research highlights the important roles educators pay in the lives of student populations experiencing displacement-based trauma (Lemke, 2018), limited educational research actually focuses on the effects of largescale displacement on U.S. educational policy and practice (Lemke, 2017). Our research examines how educational personnel in one urban, Western New York high school leverage available policy (federal, state, and/or local) and programmatic (pedagogy, discipline, and/or community) supports to address the mental health needs of displaced (refugee and hurricane survivors) students. We seek to understand the following: How do available educational policy and programmatic supports help or hinder displaced student populations? Are there identified school and/or staffing needs related to these supports?

Our study adopted an interdisciplinary, action-oriented approach to research framing, implementation, and analysis. In doing so, our research sought to be critical (focused on power dynamics within policy and organizational practice), relevant (cognizant of current policy and organizational trends), self-sustaining (research partnership and/or deliverables extend beyond research duration), and reciprocal (both the partner and research sites will benefit). Given the social and emotional needs of displaced students, ultimately we wanted to understand what one school was doing to assist students who have experienced trauma, what supports were working or needed, and how as researchers, we might lend critical, community-grounded, and evidence-driven support.         

In Spring 2018, our team engaged in multiple site observations of shared school spaces, individual classrooms, and community events, as well as conducted semi-structured interviews and focus groups with school personnel. We identified several emerging issues that shape the mental health and academic wellbeing of students including: level of poverty and cultural assimilation; staff training on displacement-related PTSD; need for self-care among staff; unexpected pedagogical disconnects and behavioral issues in certain displaced male student populations; and lacking resources related to language acquisition and testing.  We expect to complete data analysis by late fall 2018.

Dr. Melinda Lemke, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, and Community for Global Health Equity Fellow in Refugee Health and Wellbeing in Buffalo, is the study Primary Investigator. Dr. Amanda Nickerson, Department of Counseling, School, and Educational Psychology, is the study Co-Investigator. Leah Feroleto Walsh, graduate student in the Economics and Educational Policy Analysis Master’s Program, formerly worked on the study. Jennifer Saboda, graduate student in the Educational Administration PhD Program, is the study’s current GA.     

References

Lemke, M. (2018). Educators as the “front line” of human trafficking prevention: An analysis of state-level educational policy. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 1–21. doi: 10.1080/15700763.2017.1398337 (online first)

Lemke, M. (2017). Trafficking and immigration policy: Intersections, inconsistencies, and implications for public education. Educational Policy, 31(6), 743–763. doi: 10.1177/0895904817719528

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2017). Global trends: Forced displacement in 2017. Geneva, Switzerland: Author.