Urban Traumatic Stress Disorder (UTSD) in the Classroom

The tiny first grader climbed up the arm of the teacher and started chocking her with all of his strength. Hearing the noise, the principal ran down the hall to the classroom to pull the student off the teacher and the first grader started chocking her. Tragically, similar incidents are occurring every day in urban schools across the United States. These classroom distractions, and their root causes, are one of the main reasons I believe there is a 30-point academic achievement gap on standardized tests between suburban and urban students.

Some students in urban communities are able to avoid negative life experiences. Tragically, violence, homelessness, hunger and abuse have become an unfortunate way of life for far too many students living in cities like Atlanta, Camden, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia and Trenton, where the school that I led for three years is located. Many students hear gunshots on a regular basis. Sometimes they are threatened at gun or knife point or deal with the brutal murder of a family member or friend. These students are frequently forced to skip dinner or move from house to house or car to car for shelter at night. Some of these students experience unthinkable abuse that causes even greater trauma to their young lives. This has resulted in Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) type symptoms in students of all ages.

There are many programs treating PTSD for war veterans. Unfortunately, there are very few programs effectively treating this ailment in public school students and their parents. Public education policy ignores the sad reality that many very intelligent urban students have great difficulty learning because they are suffering from a form of PTSD caused by violence, hunger, homelessness and abuse in the communities where they live. Unfortunately, the trauma that these students experience is not “post.” It is continuous and manifests itself in unique ways in urban neighborhoods. I have found that the term Urban Traumatic Stress Disorder (UTSD) more accurately describes what they are experiencing at home or in their neighborhood. UTSD comes about because of continuous trauma and often leads to limited academic achievement because of an inability to listen to the teacher and focus on school work.

The traumatic experiences that many urban students face directly affect the parts of the brain that control emotions and memory. Studies such as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research on 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patients, clearly indicate that traumatic childhood experiences are a fundamental reason why individuals do poorly in school and suffer later in life. Extensive research has indicated that the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory forming, organizing and storing, and the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions such as anger, fear and pleasure, are extremely sensitive to stress and trauma.

If a child, is exposed to prolonged trauma (which is frequently called “Negative Neuroinfluence” or ”NNI”) the amygdala and hippocampus change in a way that negatively affects a student’s emotional stability, memory and ability to learn. Current special education programs do not provide the social-emotional support systems necessary to address the neurological problems of many urban students. These students, therefore, continue to do poorly in class and frequently distract other students from learning. The good news is that “Positive Neuroinfluence“ or “PNI” can reverse some of the changes to the brain caused by severe trauma.

Studies have shown that PNI programs, like mindfulness for students, help young people improve their ability to manage emotions. Research suggests that the daily practice of mindfulness, where individuals spend 10 minutes or more focused on breathing and present moment awareness, can rewire the amygdala and overcome the effects of UTSD. By developing a greater ability to be present in the moment, students can significantly increase their academic performance and enjoyment of learning. Unfortunately, current public policy does not provide funding for the specialized educational support that students experiencing NNI need to succeed in school. The academic achievement gap will likely widen unless policy makers support the expansion of PNI programs designed to address the social, emotional and learning needs of students who have experienced significant trauma in their early lives.

Dr. Dale Caldwell is the co-founder of the Black Excellence Alliance ( He is a professor and the executive director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) Rothman Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Dr. Caldwell is the author of six books including the ground-breaking book Intelligent Influence: The 4 Steps of Highly Successful Leaders and Organizations. He is the creator of the Entrepreneur Zone program and the founder of the Dale Caldwell Foundation,, the Black Executives Network, the Black Entrepreneurs Hall of Fame, the Black Executives Hall of Fame, the Black Inventors Hall of Fame and the Black Tennis Hall of Fame. These innovative organizations inspire black excellence and immortalize accomplished people who have been overlooked in the history books because of their race.

Dr. Caldwell earned a BA in Economics (with a minor in African American studies) from Princeton University, an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a Doctorate from Seton Hall University. He is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach (ACC) who completed the Harvard Kennedy School Senior Executives in State and Local Government program and the Rutgers Leadership Coaching for Organizational Performance program.