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 Article of Interest - School Climate

Teachers’ Dirty Looks
Less Dramatic Than Paddling, But Emotional Abuse Still Hurts

Teachers may not realize the long-lasting effects of intimidating their students. Some students remember the humiliation decades later.

by Claudine Chamberlain, ABC News
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In talking to hundreds of people about their worst school experiences, Irwin Hyman has gathered quite a collection of heartbreaking tales.

One student was humiliated when the teacher pointed out to the entire class that he was scratching his rear end. A misbehaving ninth grader was put in a corner of the classroom with chairs piled around him and told that he was being “caged just like an animal.”

A first-grade teacher taunted one of her students by chanting “crybaby, crybaby” as the child walked by. A sixth-grader was proclaimed a “slut” by her teacher when she showed up in class wearing lipstick left over from being in a school play.

Some Scarred for Years

While these examples might not be as dramatic as a paddling from the principal, or being slapped by a teacher, they’re forms of abuse nonetheless, says Hyman, a professor of school psychology at Temple University and an outspoken critic of spanking in schools. In especially bad cases, he says, the psychological damage lingers for years.

Hyman says his research, which he describes in the new book Dangerous Schools, has shown that emotional abuse by teachers and school administrators can leave as many as 1 to 2 percent of all students so shell-shocked that their symptoms qualify as post-traumatic stress disorder.

While that may not sound like a lot, it turns out to be a significant number of students. In a school district like New York City, for example, that would mean 10,000 severely traumatized kids.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, usually associated with combat or natural disasters, is marked by troubling nightmares, depression, reliving the ordeal in your mind and avoiding situations or people that remind you of the trauma.

Will This Year Be Worse?

Hyman fears that things will be even worse now, as the new school year begins and educators are more anxious than ever about violence after the previous year’s shootings in Colorado, Georgia and elsewhere. Schools are more likely to react with increased security and discipline rather than more mental health counselors for kids.

What they don’t realize, Hyman says, is that emotional mistreatment of students can contribute to the problem of violence in the first place by making the kids feel rejected and isolated.

“The real danger in schools,” he says, “is the ongoing physical and emotional maltreatment by teachers and staff.” That usually takes the form of intimidation, ignoring students, being overly critical, verbal assaults like sarcasm and name-calling and failing to intervene when kids are teased or bullied by their peers.

School Stress Trouble Signs

Here are some signs that children may be suffering from school-related post-traumatic stress disorder:

Child has difficulty paying attention or focusing on schoolwork.
Child has nightmares or other sleep disturbances.
Child is aggressive, hostile or makes threats.
Child avoids school, teachers or anything related to the trauma.
Child has repeated unwanted thoughts about an event.
Child has health problems like headaches or stomachaches that seem to be stress-related.
Child seems depressed or has lost interest in activities he once enjoyed.

Kevin P. Dwyer, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, says Hyman overstates the problem by placing so much blame on teachers. More than three-quarters of students say they’re happy in school, Dwyer says, and almost half can easily name a teacher who changed their life for the better.

Judging by his conversations with students, he says, students are far more concerned about the emotional abuse kids give each other than what they get from their teachers.

Teachers Don’t Get Help

However, kids can often tell you about a teacher who humiliated them or made them feel dejected. Dwyer knows one student who drank liquid drain opener after a teacher told her she was too stupid to learn algebra. Thankfully, she survived.

Although it’s too soon to tell, Dwyer says he wouldn’t be surprised if things get worse this school year.

“I would suspect that teachers do feel more tense,” he says. “And school systems haven’t given teachers the resources to deal with the anxieties and frustrations they’re probably having this year. When people have anxieties and frustrations they usually don’t behave effectively.”

Plus, Dwyer says, teachers get very little training in how to be sensitive to their students’ psychological needs in disciplining them. More than a few teachers would probably say they’re the ones being emotionally abused, bogged down by huge classes and unruly students.

“Problems like this are directly related to the amount of support they receive in how to handle their classrooms,” he says. “And if you don’t know how to do it, you yell. You bully the people who are irritating you,” he says. “I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t want to learn other techniques for better discipline.”

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