Health & Science

New Surgeon General Recommends Every Child Be Screened for Trauma

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Educating the whole child is a philosophy we see more and more in education. California’s first Surgeon General took this philosophy one step further with her new recommendation that every student be screened for childhood trauma before they enter school.

In her address to California legislators, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, first Surgeon General of California, discussed her experience with victims of childhood trauma and how it affects behavior. Burke Harris has dedicated much of her life’s work to childhood trauma patients. 

Childhood trauma is linked to learning and behavior problems.

While working as a clinician in San Francisco, Dr. Burke Harris noticed that many of her patients were referred by school personnel for attention difficulties. “What I found was that many of the kids were experiencing signs of adversity, and there seemed to be a strong association between adversity and the trauma they experienced and school functioning,” she told NBC News. This observation led her examine over 700 patient records. Her team of researchers found that childhood trauma patients were 32 times more likely to have learning or behavioral problems. 

According to The Mental Health Connection, a group committed to improving access to and quality of mental health care, “26% of children in the United States will witness or experience a traumatic event before they turn four.” Dr. Burke Harris’s plan would help identify those trauma victims in order to better serve them in a classroom environment.

We need a new way of addressing this trauma.

Much of Dr. Burke Harris’s experience stems from identifying children through the ACE task force. ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, are stressful childhood events like poverty, family separation or abuse. Children affected by ACEs may exhibit behavioral issues that are generally addressed with medication or behavioral intervention, when what they actually need is help working through the trauma they’ve experienced.

Dr. Burke Harris says things like team sports or changes in their environment may be what students need, rather than the traditional methods we would use to help a child who is having trouble paying attention in class or maintaining friendships. Her recommendations include bringing all of the school staff onboard to help support students who need it.

“When you have a whole community making real change,” she says, “you can have a big and lasting change.”

Dr. Burke Harris’s recommendation is hopefully just the beginning of the educational system looking at the whole child. If our educational system is truly going to support all children, they need to be able to see and take into account the bigger picture of what is happening in their daily lives.

Jessica Watson is a freelance writer, author and the blogger behind Four Plus an Angel. Mom to five kids, four in her arms and one in her heart, she tries hard to enjoy them every moment but sometimes dreams of a week alone with a pile of her favorite books. "Four Plus an Angel" -