Could School Cause PTSD?

School is a joy for some, OK for some, and a decades-long trauma for others.

Posted Jul 30, 2016

 Diego Grez/CC 3.0
Source: Diego Grez/CC 3.0

Some people's school experience is as traumatic as that experienced by people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Here, I create an example and at the end, offer takeaways for a wider range of people.

On the first day of preschool, Mo freaked out at the thought of his mother leaving him without her. That was a frightening first half-hour after which he calmed. But his fear resurfaced when his teacher insisted it was nap time and he had to lie down—he wasn't tired. He wanted not only to stay awake but to run around. The teacher wouldn't let him. It scared Mo that he wasn't even allowed to stay awake during the day. Worse, it wasn't his parents telling him; it was some stranger. Not a good beginning for Mo's decades in the schools.

Like many bright kids, Mo knew the alphabet and even read some words by the time he entered the first grade. But like most classes in recent decades, they weren't grouped by ability but mixed. Making it worse for above-average students, most teachers feel external and internal pressure to focus on the low-achievers, to close the achievement gap.

So Mo had to sit through two years of lessons teaching kids to read in the way that weak students need to learn it: phonics: vowel sounds, consonant sounds, short-a, long e: diphthongs, digraphs. And when it came time to actually read, Mo, who could read The Cat in the Hat cold, was pressed into indentured servitude: He had to painstakingly help weaker students struggle through. "It. ... was ... a ... colb ... no ... cold ... and wet ... bay. "No, Johnny it's 'cold and wet day.'" 

Mo couldn't still for this and so started reading ahead: "No, Mo, stay with your reading partner." Such strictures frustrated Mo more and so he developed a habit of doodling and, horrors, getting out of his seat to look out the window, and okay, poke other kids.

Mo's parents had waved goodbye to their bright-eyed preschooler. Now they say hello to their dulled first grader. As bad, they say hello to a child whose teacher said needs to be evaluated for hyperactivity and Ritalin.

Mo's academic boredom continued off and on through elementary and middle school but perhaps more worthy of your time is to mention that, while verbally assertive, Mo was physically reticent, a dangerous combination when dealing with some pre-adolescents. So Mo was often bullied by seemingly heartless, even sadistic boys, and ostracized from the "in" girls' tight web. Capstoning all this, perhaps because Mo was slightly delayed in acquiring secondary sex characteristics—deeper voice, facial and body hair—gay boys often came on to him and when he said he wasn't gay, they insisted he was.

High school brought a new set of problems. This time, the academics were sometimes too difficult and certainly seeming more irrelevant. The new Common Core curriculum, heralded by educators and politicians as raising standards for all students, was perceived by many students as filled with hard irrelevancies.

For example, here are the first-listed objectives in the Common Core Standards for 9th-grade Algebra. Mo's most common thought throughout much of high school was, "Why do I need to know this? If I become an engineer or mathematician, I could learn that in college but I know I don't want to do anything with all this math in it."

Seeing Structure in Expressions

  • Interpret the structure of expressions
  • Write expressions in equivalent forms to solve problems
  • Arithmetic with polynomials and rational expressions
  • Perform arithmetic operations on polynomials
  • Understand the relationship between zeros and factors of polynomials
  • Use polynomial identities to solve problems
  • Rewrite rational expressions

Creating Equations

  • Create equations that describe numbers or relationships
  • Reasoning with equations and inequalities
  • Understand solving equations as a process of reasoning and explain the reasoning.
  • Solve equations and inequalities in one variable.
  • Solve systems of equations
  • Represent and solve equations and inequalities graphically

In high school, Mo took five or six academic courses per semester, some of which were Advanced Placement (college-level.) He did that because counselors, peers, and parents said it would help in getting into top colleges. He was also urged to go deep into and excel at one or more extracurriculars plus do community service. As a result, Mo was usually exhausted and overwhelmed.

And the social alienation continued, at least intermittently. He always felt outside the "in" crowd. Attractive girls wouldn't go out with him, and again there were false rumors that he was gay. While intellectually, he knew that there is nothing wrong with being gay, emotionally it felt bad to be so labeled, especially when he felt pretty sure he was heterosexual.

Mo did get into his first-choice college. He was sure he wouldn't—the college's publicly reported statistics suggested he was a long-shot. While Mo was scared it would be too hard, how could he turn down the prestige of a designer-label college? So he went.

But the combination of being one of the university's weaker students combined with today's colleges abandonment of in loco parentis resulted in Mo studying too little, downloading others' term papers from the internet, watching too many sports games, and staying up too late with his human and chemical "friends."

Some of Mo's courses even increased his sense of alienation—ripping American capitalism, American exceptionalism, white maleness (He is both.) The professors and the texts they assigned told him he was a beneficiary of white male privilege and of the Eurocentric hegemony. Yet, "I don't feel privileged. All I feel is attacked. And whatever privilege I have I feel I earned or my family earned for me. But the professors say I'm wrong. I don't know what to think."

Mo wanted to "take a break" after the first semester but his parents, not college-educated themselves but deep believers that education is "the answer," pushed and pushed him to stay, even though it was costing them a fortune and they knew he was hardly making the most of it. Mo's dad said to him, "It's like you're pulling up to the gas station, paying $40 but only putting $10-worth into your tank and driving away." But after two and a half years of college unhappiness, Mo could endure it no longer and dropped out.

Alas, after a year of being able to find no better job than barista, Mo reluctantly returned to school. Unfortunately, demotivated, the supposed 1 1/2 years Mo had to finish took him three years but finally—and $165,000 in debt—Mo graduated with a major in sociology and minor in American Studies.

When asked how he felt about his journey through school, Mo said, "It feels like two decades of waterboarding."

Now tortured by insecurity, the imposter syndrome, and memories of the 20 years of school trauma, Mo has become the stereotype; Uber driver, video games, girls, drinking, pot. But beneath the stereotype and the standard explanations—genetics, parenting, peer pressure, irresponsibility, and fear of failure—may lie an under-discussed explanation: school-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Takeaway

Teachers, parents, and students: As mentioned up-front, this is a fictitious case and an extreme one but does any of it ring true to you? And if so, does it have any implications for what you might want to do differently?

For example, as a student, are you imposing pain on a classmate? As a teacher, are you contributing to students' too-pervasive boredom and/or believing the curriculum is irrelevant to their lives? As a parent, are you too quick to blame your child for what, at least in part, may be the schools' fault?