Neglect, hunger, bullying create academic challenges


The school year has started again - and all those excited and nervous students and parents begin the challenges of new classes, teachers and classmates. Next to families, schools are the most powerful and enduring influence on children and youth. Being a successful student opens opportunities and builds self-confidence that can be lifelong. Dealing with academic trauma and failure has challenges that bury deep into an individual's personality.

At Nonviolence Works, we know that not all students are anticipating an exciting and successful school year. They may have experienced a variety of stressors and they bring those to the classroom, where learning is compromised. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began a landmark study in the mid-1990s on how adverse childhood experiences create neurological blocks to learning. The research identified neglect, hunger, bullying, witnessing violence, experiencing abuse and living in an unsafe neighborhood as some of the indicators of childhood trauma. And just one unsuccessful school year can create a pattern of fear and withdrawal from learning.

Some school districts in New Mexico have few resources to deal therapeutically with the number of students who need extra social and emotional support. Cooperative agreements with agencies (such as Nonviolence Works) can start to make a difference. When a student is dealing with more than one traumatic experience, even the most wise and skilled educator cannot respond to all their needs.

Yet teachers recognize the need for help when a student does not feel safe, when they act out in class, when they refuse to participate in a learning activity. They are sometimes used to chaos - it is the home climate they may have experienced - so they try to create that environment in the classroom. Other times, they recognize that they do not have academic skills, such as reading. Being disruptive can hide their fear and depression. And the first task of caring adults is to help the student calm down before understanding the stress. Then healing can begin.

NVW has full-time clinicians available at Taos Middle School, Taos High School and Ranchos Elementary School. Parents can refer their child or seek services for themselves through NVW. Keeping students on a successful path in school is critical. One school suspension triples the likelihood that the student will become involved in the juvenile justice system. The earlier students are referred for services, the more powerful the changes can be.

The generosity of Lourdes Cordova, the principal at Ranchos Elementary School, enables us to have access to space to continue our therapeutic after-school program, Familia y Mundo. Now in its sixth year of services, the program accepts referrals from teachers and parents who see the importance of a safe environment where students can work through depression, social fears, academic trauma and other stressors. Individual and group therapy is offered, along with arts, physical activities and support for homework.

School districts that take seriously the importance of healing trauma in their students state that adults are responsible for creating a safe environment for learning - at home and school. "We cannot arrest or suspend our way to safer schools," said one educator. "We have to be able to ask, 'What happened to you?' and seek calming, supportive services."

Here at NVW, we are ready to respond with those services. Contact us at (575) 758-4297 or

Nonviolence Works has a large staff of licensed and credentialed behavioral health professionals in Northern New Mexico. McPhail Gray is the board chair of NVW and can be reached at or (575) 779-3126.


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