Adverse Childhood Experiences: Implications for Schools
When I graduated with a degree in psychology and family services, I didn’t even know that the job I do today was a job! I was one of those students who knew what they were interested in, but had no idea how that translated into a viable career. I was very lucky to get my first job with the local Extension and Outreach in the mid-size urban city where my new husband and I moved. The Cooperative Extension System is the outreach branch of land-grant universities all over the United States. It was created over 100 years ago with the idea that a university should serve the people of its state with the latest research, by placing “field staff” where people lived, worked and raised families. With the guidance of my director, I came to understand that my primary role was to embed myself within the community in ways that raised the capacity of organizations, schools, families and individuals to use research to meet local needs and improve quality of life. I have worked with countless formal and informal organizations over the years on many different projects, but by the time I received my graduate degree, focused on coursework within education, psychology, counseling and human development, I realized that my primary passion resided in understanding and supporting services that reduce risk and raise resiliency among high risk and disadvantaged populations.
The philosophy and approach of family life education has solutions to the challenges of ACES.
I learned important lessons from the families who participated in the parent education classes I facilitated, my co-workers and colleagues, as well as the many social workers, therapists, interventionists, and family support workers who I have had the privilege to work alongside. One of the most significant lessons in my career has been that ecological stressors from within communities, neighborhoods and families, interact with personal factors such as health, socioeconomic status, disability, educational level, etc. to create a “perfect storm” of both risk and resiliency. If we can understand the way these factors influence development, we can help support assets and reduce risks. I continued to study human development and, in addition to earning my Certified Family Life Educator designation, received a credential in Human Development and Family Studies from the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. I went on to complete a graduate certificate in Family Life Coaching, and become a Board Certified Life Coach. Each additional class and credential helped me gain knowledge within the ten family life education content areas, and better understand how to apply this knowledge within my local community in ways that make a difference.
By 2010, I began to work more closely with the K-12 education systems in our community. Teachers, school administrators, counselors, school-based therapists, and support staff began to articulate what the risk and resiliency research shows: social, familial and economic risk factors interfere with students’ development in ways that interfere with positive outcomes. School staff felt at a loss to explain the behavior of both students and families that appeared to greatly sabotage their success. Even when students were bright, compassionate, and motivated, complex ecological factors interfered with students’ use of these assets in school. As schools struggled to find new behavior management strategies, and attempted a variety of techniques to change the attitudes and actions of students, I lamented with my school-based colleagues that some students actually seemed to have an increase in problem behaviors with new behavior management techniques. What was going on? I did not believe there was such a thing as a bad kid. Nor did I believe that these families who were struggling so much didn’t love their children. There had to be a different explanation.
… ecological stressors from within communities, neighborhoods and families, interact with personal factors such as health, socioeconomic status, disability, educational level, etc. to create a “perfect storm” of both risk and resiliency.
This is when I was first exposed to ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) and Trauma Informed Practice research. Finally, the dilemmas I experienced in my work with families, in the classroom with students, and the family life and human development concepts I learned in my own education, began to come together. We can both predict and explain poor outcomes for our children and families in more than just a “my experience tells me” sort of way. With this knowledge, we can work to systematically prevent, intervene and mediate risk factors in ways that are quantifiable. This meant I could help my school-based colleagues understand their students, families and behaviors in a different way. The question was, how?
Our community had already begun a broad effort to educate the public about ACES. This research resonated with people. They began to realize the role that ecological factors play in the development of children and within family systems. As more and more human service providers learned to ask “What happened to them?” instead of “What is wrong with them?” I realized that one place of growing need was within our school systems. Teachers needed more specific explanations for what they were seeing in the classroom. School counselors needed more support in understanding why typical behaviorist-based approaches to behavior management weren’t working well. Administrators needed help to determine what school-wide discipline should look like, given what ACES tells us about human development.
I have spent the last two years pouring through the existing literature and gathering information from my friends and colleagues in education and the therapeutic world, trying to bring together these two fields of practices, using the asset-based, systems lens of family life education. The philosophy and approach of family life education has solutions to the challenges of ACES. I have been working with schools to find practical ways to incorporate three basic, research-based, trauma-informed strategies into the day-to-day practice of the classroom.
First, relationships come first. In fact Gharabaghi (2008) says, “Relationships are the interventions” (p. 31). Because children’s psychosocial health is predicated on trusting relationships (Erickson, 1982), attachment (Bowlby & Winton, 1998), and attunement (Perry, 2009), we see a wide variety of emotional and behavioral challenges in children who have been exposed to trauma. When children’s internal, mental models of relationships are distorted, their ability to self-regulate and have positive, meaningful interactions with others are often limited. In fact, close, consistent relationships with others are so vital to children’s health that when trauma has interfered with the formation of these relationships, personality development can be impacted throughout the lifespan. For educators and social service agencies who strive to select and implement the latest research-based programs, it is easy to overlook the decades of research that shows the power of positive human connection.
On a practical level, this means frequent opportunities for consistent emotional connection must be a priority and must be intentionally planned. Certainly, spontaneous, warm interactions are welcome, but the relationship needs of traumatized children are so critical to their success that they must be a planned part of the educational environment. Just as we offer reading intervention to students who need extra support in reading, we need to offer relationship intervention to those students who need extra support in building relationships. The psychosocial value of these relationships are so important that when dissenters say, “I don’t have time to spend doing that,” I always say the same thing, “You don’t have time not to.”
Second, trauma has not only impacted a child’s emotional well-being, but it has also impacted them cognitively. In order to explain the trauma-cognition connection, I have had to rely on the functional brain technologies that have changed the way family life educators and others understand the plasticity of the brain. Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change according to experiences. Especially when children are young, neurological connections are made through repeated exposure. The part of the brain that is being used during each experience strengthens with each use. When children are exposed to safe, trusting relationships and enriching experiences, the parts of the brain that ensure their eventual ability to self-regulate, understand and follow rules, delay gratification through planning, sequencing and prioritizing, predict and accept consequences, etc. are used and strengthened. Located primarily in the frontal cortex of the brain, these abilities are often referred to as executive functioning. They are extremely important in being able to navigate the day-to-day learning environment of school. When students have been exposed to shallow and terrorizing experiences, the parts of the brain that process that type of information, located in the subcortical areas of the brain (primarily in the limbic system), become strengthened. These parts of the brain are associated with scanning the environment for threat, perceiving danger, and experiencing fear.
Using this research, I have helped teachers and administrators learn about, develop and apply strategies to scaffold (Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976) the executive functioning of students who exposed to trauma. By explaining the ways that trauma has impacted the brain, teachers can begin to make sense out of the difficulties students have in “paying attention” and concentrating, following multi-step instructions, remembering processes and procedures, etc., and enact methods such as picture schedules, visual timers, desktop scaffolding strips and movement, non-contingent breaks, etc. into their daily practice.
When children’s internal, mental models of relationships are distorted, their ability to self-regulate and have positive, meaningful interactions with others are often limited.
Third, behavioral models of classroom management don’t typically work very well with children exposed to trauma. This has been the most difficult information to convey to school staff, as what little behavior management training they have had is most often based in behaviorism. According to Certified Trauma Consultant John Micsak (2012), “this bias has seriously limited our ability to reach and provide healing for children with neurodiversity issues” (p. 143). He asserts that older behaviorist-based models do a poor job of incorporating the current research about structural and functional changes in the brains of traumatized children into our approaches to behavior management. Due to advances in our understanding of how the brain develops and grows, many of the problematic behaviors of traumatized children, such as aggression and anger can be understood as extreme dysregulation (Cicchetti & Rogosch, 2007). Left without appropriate interventions, many long-lasting psychological problems result from unhealthy regulation of emotion (Ehring, Truschen-Caffier, Schnulle, Fischer & Gross, 2010). It is quite common for adults who are unfamiliar with individual student situations or with the neurological basis for problem behavior, to view behavior as oppositional, rebellious, unmotivated or antisocial (Perry, 2009). In adults’ quest to be “more directive” and “more firm,” neurological pathways for threat become stronger, and the child’s maladaptive responses typically become more frequent and more generalized. In educational settings, stronger hyperarousal or dissociative responses from the child often lead to more restrictive environments, which typically are retraumatizing to the child, as they involve further disruption of relationships and increases in stress triggers. In other words, the way our schools are disciplining traumatized students is likely decreasing their psychosocial health.
My role has been to work with school-based therapists, administrators and teachers to learn about, develop, apply and evaluate how trauma-informed approaches such as collaborative problem solving, restorative justice practice, and use of sensory strategies to regulate the brain are more appropriate and make a more positive impact on students.
As of this writing, I am preparing for a daylong Trauma Informed Practice training aimed at professionals who work in juvenile justice. At the beginning of next school year, I will begin work with two new school districts who want to explore how to incorporate trauma informed practices into their schools. As I reflect on the expansion of my work, I can say that the best part is hearing from school staff about how a different approach or better understanding of their students has changed the climate in their classrooms. The hardest part is knowing there is so much left to be done to reach our most vulnerable populations. I had a professor in graduate school tell me something that I always pass along to my staff and university students. “Don’t let what you can’t do interfere with what you can do.” Remembering this keeps me going when I feel overwhelmed by the importance of this work.
Jennifer Best, MS. Ed., CFLE, CFCS-HDFS, BCC, is a Certified Family Life Educator for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Scott County and an adjunct faculty member at St. Ambrose University in the Department of Psychology. She teaches parent education, leads several work teams in the community around issues of human development, and provides training, consultation, program development and evaluation services for schools and agencies.
Bowlby, J. & Winton, J. (1998). Attachment and loss: Separate, anger and anxiety. New York: Basic Books.
Chicchetti, D. & Rogosch, F. (2007). Personality, adrenal steroid hormones, and resilience in maltreated children: A multilevel perspective. Development and Psychopathology, 19(3), 787-809.
Ehring, T., Tuschen-Caffier, B., Schulle, j., Fischer, W. & Gross, J. (2010). Emotion regulation and vulnerability to depression: Spontaneous versus instructed use of emotional suppression and reappraisal. Emotion, 10(4), 563-572.
Erickson, E.H. (1982). The lifecycle completed: Review. New York: Norton.
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Perry, B. (2009). Examining child maltreatment through a neurodevelopmental lens: Clinical
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Wood, D. J.; Bruner, J. S.; Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 17(2), 89–100.