We all had that student who comes in looking disheveled, hungry and not in a learning state of mind. We’ve made all the referrals to everyone we know, to help that child and their family get the support, to change what is happening or not happening to aid their development. We walk away from that student feeling there should be more that could be done. You may be doing more than you think.
Have you ever heard of ACEs - you may be thinking, yes they are the thing that you can win big at Vegas with! Sorry, not those ones. ACEs meaning Adverse Childhood Experiences are the things that have occurred between birth to eighteen years of age that have had a negative effect on a child’s development. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACEs study in Southern California between 1995-1997 looked at the correlation between adverse experiences that occurred in childhood and long term health problems. Their findings were stark. If a person had four or more ACEs growing up their risk of suicide was twelve times more likely than a person with none.
All children have negative experiences in childhood but what constitutes an ACE? These are:
Abuse - physical, verbal, emotional
Neglect - physical, emotional and household challenges
Separation of parents - A parent in prison, domestic violence, substance misuse and mental health difficulties within the home.
Other studies into ACEs have used these parameters as their measures of ACEs too. These studies have concluded similar results with different population demographics in different countries. The idea that what happens before the age of 18 for a child has life long consequences on that person’s health is difficult to digest. We all want healthy children in our classes, who develop into adults that are healthy too, but obviously that is not our primary focus.
Further studies into childhood and brain development have linked how the brain works and learns to the body’s normal reaction to threats/feeling scared and the overload that many ACEs can cause to the system.
Imagine a fire breathing dragon coming towards you, this initiates your system’s flight or fight mode, chemicals flood your brain and body with all the right things to be able to escape the monster or have a go at tackling it. This is a normal response to a life threatening monster you have come across. In a child where the fire breathing dragon hangs out at home, they wake up everyday in its lair, the body’s fight or flight response is in use nearly constantly and those mostly helpful chemicals are swilling about in their body’s for longer periods of time and significantly more often. The presence of those ‘helpful’ chemicals are good when you are needing to be in survival mode occasionally, because they support your body, in survival mode they are focused on keeping you alive. But they are not so focused on abstract thinking, social interaction or regulating your emotions (as you’re allowed to be freaking out - there is a fire breathing dragon very near).
For a child where the dragon lives with them, those survival chemicals are highly likely to be in their system when they walk into school/your classroom. Those children are likely to be untrusting of adults so in your classroom they may be hyper alert to threats or perceived threats, which can trigger these survival chemicals. Now, start a lesson where the child needs to sit next to someone they find difficult to get along with, on the topic of space and planets. You can see how hard that could be to manage, but the child’s body systems are really hindering here as it’s tuned into survival mode not learning mode.
ACEs have the potential to have a very negative effect in your classroom, this is why it is not just knowledge and understanding that needs to stay within the health community. It may all feel hopeless as we cannot magically make all child’s lives ACEs free, but there are things that educators can do to help reduce the occurrences of ACEs and they are probably things you are doing already.
Further studies into how to counteract ACEs has shown that providing safe, stable nurturing relationships and environments helps to decrease ACEs but also gives children places where they can ask for help from trusted adults. If you think about it, for some children an educator may be the only substantial relationship with an adult that is outside their family, they may have, especially for younger children.
In your classroom (virtually or physically) taking the time to ask how a child is and what they did at the weekend is the first building block of that safe, stable, nurturing relationship (and environment) that could be doing a lot more good than you realize.
Download this presentation that explains ACEs, their importance and what an educator can do about them in their classroom.