I was an interventions kid.
I was recommended for a program designed to teach “refusal skills.”
I was pulled from my elementary school classroom to talk to police officers.
I was interviewed by my counselor on a regular basis–though I thought at the time that was just because she liked playing board games.
I was an interventions kid.
Though I didn’t know the name until after starting teaching, my higher-than average Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score is one of the reasons I became a teacher. I knew I wanted to be there for other kids navigating tumultuous terrain. The more I learn about just how pervasive ACE’s are, and their profound impact on health over a lifetime, the more convinced I become that teachers everywhere must become deeply familiar with them.
Where can we start?
We can begin by recognizing the seriousness of the issue.
NPR shared this graphic to illustrate some of the many health risks associated with ACEs:
As Dr. Nadia Burke Harris points out in her excellent Ted Talk below,
“Some people looked at this data and they said, “Come on. You have a rough childhood, you’re more likely to drink and smoke and do all these things that are going to ruin your health. This isn’t science. This is just bad behavior.”
It turns out this is exactly where the science comes in. We now understand better than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children…there are real neurological reasons why folks exposed to high doses of adversity are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior…
But it turns out that even if you don’t engage in any high-risk behavior, you’re still more likely to develop heart disease or cancer.”
We can work to identify & discuss how it is impacting our local community.
Here in my state, we are currently facing a youth suicide crisis that has school leaders at a loss. They are desperately searching out better prevention programs and better research to identify warning signs. As we look for answers, I hope that we look to better understand the role of childhood trauma. After all, “An expanding body of research suggests that childhood trauma and adverse experiences can lead to a variety of negative health outcomes, including attempted suicide among adolescents and adults” (source); a person with a score of 4 is 12 times more likely to attempt suicide than a person with an ACE score of 0. And that rate continues to climb with higher ACE scores.
We can reframe our mindsets regarding student behavior.
We can challenge the assumption that kids’ poor behavior is always intentional, willful, or personal. As Stuart Shanker writes in Self Reg:
“The concept of misbehavior is fundamentally tied to those of volition, choice, and awareness. It assumes that the child willingly chose to act the way he did. He could have acted differently, was even aware that he should have acted differently. But stress behavior is physiologically based. When this happens, the child is not deliberately choosing his actions or aware in a rational way of what he’s doing…because his nervous system, triggered by a sense of threat, shifts to fight or flight. There are some simple ways to gauge when we’re dealing with misbehavior. Ask the child why he did such and such, and if he answers with any explanation — no matter what his rationale — there’s a pretty good chance he knew what he was doing. Or ask him to tell you with a straight face that he didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong. Stress behavior also reveals itself quickly. If you see confusion, fear, anger, or deep distress in that face, if your child averts his eyes or finds it hard to even just look at you, those are often signs of hyperarousal and of stress behavior.”
Kids who have experienced trauma are often in what is known as “toxic stress.” Of course, this does not mean we give them license for poor behavior, but it does mean we can take an understanding-driven stance (see this excellent example which takes a look at when we choose to focus on routine and compliance vs dialogue and compassion).
We can cultivate an environment where kids feel safe. This includes maintaining a sense of normalcy, cultivating self-regulatory skills (art, mindfulness, etc.) & building resilience by helping them to identify their strengths & to develop confidence in using those strengths for problem-solving.
This is especially important because even for kids who have high ACE scores, positive influences can still make a profound impact. As the earlier-mentioned NPR article states:
Remember this, too: ACE scores don’t tally the positive experiences in early life that can help build resilience and protect a child from the effects of trauma. Having a grandparent who loves you, a teacher who understands and believes in you, or a trusted friend you can confide in may mitigate the long-term effects of early trauma, psychologists say.
Below are some concrete resources you can apply today in these efforts.
- ACEResponse.org Resources for educators (the NCTSN Trauma Toolkit is especially helpful)
- Edutopia: Creating Safety & Attachment For Students With Trauma
- Heart & Mind Well-Being Resource for Educators (including resources like printable How Is My Body Doing feelings gauge, & lesson plans to talk about stress)
- The Child & Adolescent Needs & Strengths (CANS) Tool
- 134 Ways to build your Self-Care plan
We can own our own trauma.
For the many of us (67%) that have at least 1 ACE, owning our stories and offering our kids hope can be powerful.
I can turn the fact that I was an interventions kid — the ugliest aspects of my childhood — into something beautiful. Indeed, I’m grateful for the fact that when I had a student tell me her parents were splitting up, I could look her in the eye and tell her that it can be ok — not the chipper pep talk of “everything will be ok,” but a glimmer of hope that someone they trust has been there, too, and knows it isn’t necessarily all over.
I’ll close with another of Nadia Harris Burke’s statements from her Ted Talk: “The science is clear. Early adversity dramatically affects health across a lifetime. Today we are beginning to understand how to interrupt the progression from early adversity to disease and early death…This is treatable. This is beatable. The single most important thing we need today is the courage to look this problem in the face and say, “This is real and this is all of us.” I believe that we are the movement.”
featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto