Charter School Head Coins Term for Inner-City Kids’ Anxiety

One school official uses urban traumatic stress disorder, UTSD, to describe the chronic anxiety felt by inner-city kids.

By Erin Delmore

“If a child breaks their leg, we wouldn’t expect them to run a 100-yard dash. Yet emotionally, many of our kids are broken and we’re expecting them to behave normally,” said Village Charter School Head of School Dale Caldwell.

Caldwell coined a term — urban traumatic stress disorder, UTSD — to describe the chronic anxiety felt by inner-city kids. While we know the condition as PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder, common among battlefield soldiers — medical professionals say the condition hits very close to home.

“We’ve heard directly from children, they’ve been shot at from distances like this, three, four feet. And that’s perhaps even more visceral than wartime,” said Rutgers New Jersey Medical School Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Tolga Taneli.

In Jersey City, 14 people under the age of 20 died from shootings or stabbings between 2009 and 2015.

“But there are also instances where kids are the victim because they witnessed some things. Or they’re directly affected because they have a family member who basically was a victim of violence,” said Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement Executive Director Pamela Johnson.

“So many of them are so concerned with surviving day to day, finding the next meal, not being yelled at, not being abused,” Caldwell said. “There are gunshots in neighborhoods, there are gunshots on a regular basis. There are murders of relatives, their family members, there’s abuse. So all of these traumas, at best, there’s stress. Every child that lives in a poor, urban community is dealing with stress, few are dealing with real trauma. And that changes how they view the world.”

Caldwell says it also changes their ability to learn and one or two struggling kids can disrupt an entire classroom. He’s brought two mindfulness experts to the Village Charter School in Trenton to lead eighth- through 11th-graders from the local Boys and Girls Club in meditation techniques.

“What we noticed was an instant shift. They were a little uncomfortable at first, and then as we went along, they were able to settle in and be more relaxed and they were definitely reporting that they felt more calm,” said To Be Mindful CEO and Founder Trish Miele.

Mindfulness is the practice of bringing attention to the present moment. Experts say it reduces stress and improves focus.

“So at their age, they’re very emotional because their prefrontal cortex is still developing. But when they practice mindfulness, it helps cultivate those neurons, helps those neurons become stronger, and it helps them build that area even faster,” said Mindful Consultants CEO and Founder Clarisa Romero.

“We’ve had a lot of the students who have gone through their sessions who’ve said, ‘You know I was about to get in a fight, and I checked my breathing, and it stopped me from doing it.’ And so it becomes a tool when they’re in a tough situation to allow them not to react,” Caldwell said.

While Caldwell’s term, UTSD, applies to inner-city kids, he says programs like the one at the Village Charter School in Trenton could be a resource for students everywhere and for adults, too.