Adverse Childhood Experiences: How They Impact Learning

Kelly Brouse
Kelly Brouse
Elementary school principal; M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction
Young boy wearing a backpack with his head down on a school bench.

“Our brains are wired for connection, but trauma rewires them for protection. That’s why healthy relationships are difficult for wounded people.” – Ryan North

When we think of childhood trauma, many immediately think of major, once-in-a-lifetime experiences like a house fire or extreme conditions like child abuse. However, the more mental health professionals study trauma and its impacts, the more we know about how common trauma actually is.

To measure trauma, a new term has been developed to assess how impacted a person is by trauma, called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). While the name is self-explanatory, it constitutes a wide scope of experiences that are not uncommon to growing up, but when compounded with one another can result in toxic stress that impacts a child’s (and eventually adult’s) ability to learn and function. Newer studies have even directly correlated ACEs with physical health impairments later in life. It is obvious that being able to identify and support a child with ACEs is critical to our success in helping them develop into successful adults.

What are Averse Childhood Experiences?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) include a long list of potential experiences a child age 0-17 may endure that can cause stress, potentially leading to trauma. The list ranges from experiences like homelessness and child abuse to other conditions that may seem more tangential, like living with a mentally ill family member or seeing a family member (typically caregiver or sibling) abused.

Research conducted by Kaiser Permanente across 25 states has shown that by adulthood, 61% of people have at least one ACE, and a score of four or more can result in serious health issues. In school age children, research estimates that about one in six students come to school with four or more ACEs. While there is a specific survey to measure how many ACEs a person has, it is recommended that teachers and school staff are familiar with what constitutes an ACE but don’t directly give the survey to students as the results of identifying and spotlighting ACEs for a school-age person will potentially cause more harm than good.

How do ACEs Impact Student Learning?

ACEs are not one-size-fits-all. While a person may have two or three ACEs, the impact of those stressors is also dependent on other factors including resilience of the individual, supportive relationships in place, how it’s impacted their physical or emotional development, and the source of the trauma.

Still, an ACE is proven to create some form of stress which puts pressure on the developing brain. These pressures can manifest in various ways, including increased learning problems, increased challenges with forming relationships, increased stress hormones weakening the immune system, decreased ability to persevere through challenges, and more. In a nutshell, an ACE (or many ACEs compounded) can trigger a survival-mode response, causing a child’s stress levels to physically escalate and diminish their ability to utilize adaptive strategies in the face of challenge or unknown.

In the classroom, this may look like a child exhibiting clingy or isolating behavior, passive/quiet behavior, frequent somatic symptoms like tummy aches, headaches, or fevers, regressive behaviors like bedwetting or baby talk, aggressive and/or mean behaviors, or “fight or flight” after a teacher gives a direction. Educator or not, you know that these behaviors will make a child inaccessible to learning and in turn significantly impact their academic growth. Therefore, it is critical we work to create both safe environments and strong, healthy relationships between student and teacher to support students with ACEs whether we know about them or not.

Strategies for Students with ACEs

Since you will likely not be aware of many of the ACEs a child in your classroom has endured, it is important to first and foremost create a trauma-informed classroom environment that meets the needs of all learners and considers the potential for ACEs. Additionally, making the school-to-home partnership strong will enhance a child’s overall well-being by having all adults in the child’s life on the same page. This additionally provides a clearer view for you as educator of both the conditions the child lives in as well as the perspectives and opinions that guide the caregiver of that child, in turn helping you to better assess and meet needs adaptively. In the same vein, becoming familiar with local resources so that you can provide suggestions and outreach to families for both health needs as well as financial supports will prove critically helpful to truly addressing the ACEs that are creating stress for a learner.

Within the classroom, ensuring consistent (ideally daily) time is carved out for social-emotional learning (SEL) to build coping and interpersonal skills will significantly address many of the challenges that are caused for a child by ACEs. Explicit instruction around how to build trusting relationships and be an upstander for the needs of others will create both skills and connections for your learners that in turn will be a community that students with ACEs can rely upon during stressful times. Programs like Second Step, RULER, and the Zones of Regulation are all options, but should be adopted school-wide rather than classroom-specific for optimal results.

A student impacted by trauma will need both teachers and school officials who believe in restorative practices rather than zero-tolerance policies to support a child exhibiting undesirable behaviors. Students with ACEs will react and communicate in all different ways, and the way we as adults respond to them in times of challenge contributes to the path they take later in life. It is always important when responding to misbehavior to remember that one of the primary definitions of “discipline” is “to teach”.

Finally, safely building resilience for children will be one of the best lessons you can impart on them to overcome the potential long-term effects of ACEs. Incrementally exposing them to challenges and introducing concepts like the growth mindset will develop students who can lose gracefully and get back up after “falling down”. Building habits and skills like gratitude will also foster resilience because students who are trained to “look for the good” will use this as an adaptive coping strategy when enduring or processing an ACE.

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