When Black Boys’ Trauma Is Exacerbated In School

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” -Frederick Douglass


When I think about this quote it often leads me to reflect on the trauma that our Black boys face growing up. To help nurture strong Black boys, we need to address the trauma that many of them face inside and outside of school.

Trauma undermines children’s inherent curiosity and desire to learn. It influences behavior, motivation and sense of purpose. While adults chide students who don’t demonstrate a deep desire to learn, many Black boys are in perpetual fight, flight, or freeze modes in response to their traumatic experience.

I’ve known adults who cowered and felt debilitated at the trauma that they’ve faced as adults and the very next year speak negatively about Black boys, children mind you, who struggle with their trauma.

Think of the attention that soldiers and other adults should receive from their experiences that led to their post-traumatic stress syndrome. For many of our students, the P in PTSD stands for persistent, perpetual, and pervasive. In the article, How to Help a Traumatized Child in the Classrooom, Joyce Dorado and Vicki Zakrzewski wrote:

Scientists have found that children who have been subjected repeatedly to trauma suffer from other social, psychological, cognitive, and biological issues, including difficulty regulating their emotions, paying attention, and forming good relationships—all of which make it very difficult for a child to succeed in school.
And, just as law enforcement and others view our youth as older, aggressive, and less sensitive to pain, educators can have this same negative view of Black children, especially our boys. When Black boys’ pain and suffering manifest in behaviors, too often they’re met with rigidity, callousness, and disciplinary referrals.

At The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, we started a “Why I Teach” tour to address what many Black boys shared about why they wouldn’t consider becoming teachers. Many Black boys we spoke to shared traumatic experiences they had within school.

They narrated the trauma they associated with being a student in our classrooms and schools as the reasons they wouldn’t want to become teachers and principals. We validate their personal experiences and challenge them to consider becoming the teachers you wish you had. This challenge is what appears to resonate with many of our Black boys. It resonates because too many Black boys don’t have the type of teachers and principals they wish they had.

Many educators advocate for more counseling and support for our students, but these resources are limited in capacity if they’re de-coupled from professional development that includes historical manifestations of racist policies that inflicted pain and trauma on Black boys and the communities they live in.

This professional development should include national and local policies that wreaked havoc on the psyche of Black boys and men. Schools must also learn the rationale and how to implement trauma-informed best practices to support our youth.

When Philadelphia participated in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey (ACEs) it revealed the very trying and often debilitating experiences our Black boys face. And, when students show the resolve that should be celebrated, if they still need help, they may be met with educational contempt. Joshua Dickerson’s poem captures some of this:

I woke myself up

Because we ain’t got an alarm clock

Dug in the dirty clothes basket,

Cause ain’t nobody washed my uniform 

Brushed my hair and teeth in the dark,

Cause the lights ain’t on

Even got my baby sister ready,

Cause my mama wasn’t home.

Got us both to school on time,

To eat us a good breakfast.

Then when I got to class the teacher fussed

Cause I ain’t got no pencil

In a society that is known for demonstrating that children are not a priority, the contempt shown for Black boys is even more alarming. We need educators who will fight on Black boys’ behalf, commit to learning more about Black boys individually and the collective oppression they face, as well as our own biases that we wield and further traumatize our students.

Because no matter what Black boys face on the outside, we know with a high level of certainty that classrooms and schools are also barriers to Black Boy Joy as well.

This blog was originally published on One Voice Blog Magazine.

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About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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