Dealing With Issues That Impact Students

What Are Impact Issues?

Impact issues are events or occurrences that cause significant stress and distress for children.

Impact issues include

  • discrimination
  • physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • neglect
  • witnessing violence at home
  • substance abuse
  • being the victim of dating violence.

These issues are difficult enough for adults to deal with; for children and youth, they usually feel insurmountable.

How do we recognize when a child is dealing with these daunting life stresses?

Impact issues arrive in the classroom with students. While some behaviours or reactions from students suggest that something is wrong in their lives, it is seldom clear what the exact nature of the issue is. For instance, an abused child may express defiance, disengagement, insolence, disorganized behaviour or emotions, or defeat.

How Do These Issues Affect School Performance?

While these events do not usually occur in the classroom, the impact they have on a student’s ability to focus and learn in the school environment can be significant. It is difficult for students to concentrate on academic work or positive social interactions when they are worried, insecure, or afraid for their own or a loved one’s safety.

Converging findings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and social work are increasingly pointing to the harmful effects on a child’s maturing brain of living in chronically stressful environments at home or in the community. Research is clear about the impact of high levels of stress on brain development. The potentially devastating effects of early trauma on children’s emotional development and capacity to form positive relationships later in life is also becoming increasingly clear.

What Can Schools Do?

Look beyond the initial self-presentation and look for what lies beneath. An initial push away may actually turn out to be a cry for support.

Encourage a culture of belonging at school, especially for those students who seem to be disengaging. Look for creative ways to connect them to their peers and the school.

Look for opportunities every day to create success in some part of these students’ lives—it may very well be the only time that day that they feel positive about themselves.

Neglect (30%), exposure to domestic violence (28%), and physical abuse (24%) were the three primary categories of substantiated maltreatment. Emotional maltreatment accounted for another 15% of cases while sexual abuse cases represented only 3% of all substantiated investigations. Physical harm was noted in 10% of cases of substantiated maltreatment. In 3% of cases, physical harm was severe enough to require medical intervention. Emotional harm was noted in 20% of substantiated cases.

Putting It Into Practice

Like adults, children do not perform well when they are focused on what may feel like uncontrollable and/or frightening events or circumstances in some part of their lives. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: interest in learning and school life can be nurtured only when students feel relatively safe and secure. Their experience at school may affect them in many positive ways by promoting self-esteem and enabling them to develop important social and problem-solving skills.

Educators are key people in the life of a child. Teachers see children for up to six hours every day. They often notice changes in a student’s behaviour very early on. The long-term influence teachers can have on students should not be underestimated. Research shows that relationships with trusted adults who help children believe in themselves can be a tipping point for those children, helping them navigate the chronic or acute stresses in other parts of their lives.

Parents/caregivers often do not know where to turn when their children are struggling behaviourally or academically. Their worries and fears may take the form of blaming the school for the children’s struggles. Engaging parents/caregivers in the process may be the best way to help children at school.

Community partners can be key allies in creating a network of various supports for students living under chronic stress or in disadvantaged conditions. Developing a supportive team that can intervene with the appropriate specialized training as required can provide a responsive and protective buffer for these children.

By working together, schools, parents/caregivers, and community partners can act as advocates for students faced with these stresses. The Fact Sheets in this chapter provide information for these advocates about key impact issues and suggestions for responses that can help children deal with them.