Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Do You See Me?: The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences in the Classroom

My children and I were leaving one of their weekly gymnastics lessons when we drove past three men sitting at a bus stop. When I approached the traffic light, I heard this loud commotion. Two of the men who had been waiting for the bus were duking it out on the sidewalk.

Yelling. Pushing. Cursing. Dropping F-bombs.

One man fell on the sidewalk near my car. As he was laying on the sidewalk, the other man began searching for large objects and rocks on the ground to throw at the man.

It was complete chaos.

As I sat staring utterly dumbfounded as these men fought adjacent to my car, I heard my 5-year old daughter whimpering in the backseat. I turned to look at her, and her legs were drawn towards her chest as she covered her eyes with her hands.

What was shocking to me was frightening to her.

When we finally drove away, I asked my daughter if she was scared. She replied, “Mmmhh…yes. How did you know?” My son said that he didn’t think much of the entire ordeal, but I know he did because later he asked, "Mom, why do you think those men were fighting?" 

That was just one of two events that occurred this summer that made me wonder how other children were faring. The other incident was much more frightening for me. My son rushed into my room in the middle of the night because he heard gunshots. Immediately I asked about his sister and told him to get away from the windows. My son was scared and worried about our safety along with other people in our neighborhood. I wasn't scared as much as I was furious.

How could this be happening in my neighborhood? I didn’t sign up for this. My children shouldn’t be exposed to this.

These were one-time events, anomalies if you will. These occurrences weren’t our norm, but for some children, it’s their reality. In recent years, the term Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has become much more prevalent when discussing traumatic experiences that children face between birth to 18. In May, I read an article where Dr. Wendy Ellis discussed Adverse Community Environments (ACEs) and how external factors can impact children’s health and wellbeing making these the Pair of ACEs. 

Far too many children live in communities that face adversity. They’re marred by gunshots and violence daily causing children to be in a constant state of fear or restlessness. Research tells us that intergenerational poverty and the lack of viable economic opportunities exacerbates violence, mental health behaviors, and substance abuse. Dr. Ellis said something that I found so profound: 
“The soil in which some children’s lives are rooted are the branches on which they grow.”
I would like to say that my children were rooted in good soil; however, that is not the case. I am part of the two-thirds of adults who have experienced one or more types of adverse childhood experiences. In my first blog, I discussed being molested at 11 years old and how that sexual abuse impacted my life. As a student, I didn’t know how to articulate what was happening to me. During a Crowley ISD school board meeting, I shared that I had attended a session on ACE at the National School Boards Association (NSBA) Annual Conference. I didn’t discuss the abuse that I endured as a child; however, I did share that as an 11-year old, I intentionally started to fail because I wanted my teachers to question why an honor student suddenly started to perform so poorly. In the sixth grade, I was on the Wizards team with a set of core teachers plus my electives. Out of the 7 teachers, none of them asked me about the change. I was willing and ready to disclose everything, but I was never given the opportunity. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been altered had someone taken the time to notice me because I felt invisible for so many years. 

An adult who has endured the following trauma: physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; parental separation, divorce, the death of an immediate family member, exposure to domestic violence and substance abuse, mental health conditions, or the incarceration of a parent doesn’t automatically discard that trauma at 18. Sadly, we carry it into adulthood, and our trauma and stress have intergenerational consequences.

Because of my trauma, I now have two children who were born to different fathers and are being raised without either. My children are part of that 70% of African-American (AA) children who were born out of wedlock and are statistically more likely to live in poverty. The only difference is, I had a bachelor's at 22 and my first child at 26. There was a point when I was unemployed and probably should have applied for public assistance, but I had too much pride maybe shame or embarrassment to admit that I needed the help. Fortunately, my children are now part of that 4% of AA children living in a household headed by a single parent with a graduate degree. Despite my accomplishments, they still have a mother who suffers from depression and requires therapy and occasionally antidepressants because of something that happened in childhood. 

"...the weight of bearing children through your brokenness"

Studies show that the children of abuse victims and those with addictions (drugs or alcohol) have an increased risk of being abused, neglected, witnessing domestic violence, being exposed to mental illness, drug abuse, and criminals. Personally, I understand the weight of bearing children through your brokenness and inadvertently passing stressors onto your child due to your stress or parenting practices or choosing to self-medicate instead of seeking professional help.

In a few weeks, our children will be returning to classrooms with 5 or more years of experiences that you may not be able to fathom. Contrary to popular belief, summer break is not a pleasant experience for everyone. There will be some students entering classrooms with invisible scars and displaying the effects of their trauma on Day 1. As a parent, I would say love my child and teach them in spite of whatever damage I may have done. As an educator, I know that it’s difficult to love and develop a meaningful relationship with 20 – 200 students especially when some make you question the profession. Teachers also have their share of personal issues whether it’s dealing with work-related stresses, going through a divorce, experiencing the loss of a loved one, caring for aging parents, or struggling to make ends meet. Be that as it may, I will say that if you can’t help your students, at least don’t hurt them any further.

Please Hear What I'm Not Saying

As humans, we're preconditioned for connection and our vulnerability arises when there's a disconnect. Children, like all people, have a desire to love and be loved, and they need someone to hear their silent cries. Like me, many may not be able to verbally express their circumstances. There's a scripture that says: 
“I cry out to You, but You do not answer me; I stand up, and You regard me (turn your back on me)." - Job 30:20 NKJV
Our children are crying, and when they realize that help is not on the way, they will take matters into their own hands. We may not like the methods they use, but they will learn to develop a coping mechanism that allows them to function day-to-day in order to protect themselves. Unfortunately, their coping strategies are often misconstrued as either having a learning disability or being oppositional.

This is particularly important based on research by Child Trends, "The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences, Nationally, by State, and by Race or Ethnicity,” sixty-one percent of black and 51% of Hispanic children have experienced at least one ACE. Both of these ethnic groups are the largest demographics in K-12 urban public schools. They are most likely to be overrepresented in special education and underrepresented in gifted, they are disciplined more than any other group, and they are more likely to be funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline. According to the study, poverty and divorce were common ACEs for blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians. The most common ACE for black children was having an incarcerated parent and they were more likely to have had a parent die. Hispanic students were more likely to live with someone who had a substance abuse problem or have an incarcerated parent. For white students, the common ACEs were living with an adult who has a mental illness or abuses drugs or alcohol. 

These are the children entering our schools.

Possible Displays in the Classroom

Cognitive Abilities

  1. Poor concentration
  2. Short-term memory
  3. Poor decision-making
  4. Poor problem-solving skills

Emotional Reactions

  1. Fear and Anxiety
  2. Sadness
  3. Anger
  4. Numbness (Emotionally Shutdown)


  1. Trying not to think about certain events
  2. Avoiding things related to event (may not like burly, male teacher, may not respond well to women; if the teacher plays music, some songs may trigger certain emotions)

Changed Worldview

  1. Difficulty trusting people
  2. Blaming themselves for the trauma
  3. Seeing themselves as weak or inadequate
  4. Highly critical

Hyperactive Nervous System

  1. Constantly on guard
  2. Seeing Danger Everywhere - Easily startled (jump at slammed door, shadow, car backfire; think someone is watching or following them)
A big one is Difficulty Sleeping. I have restless nights, and I know that some children may have flashbacks or nightmares when they close their eyes. Someone may try to enter their room at night or there may be violence so they stay awake or alert to protect themselves. School may be a safe place to rest, but teachers see it as disrespectful, not recognizing that they may be reluctant to fall asleep at home.

Supporting Students' Experiences

Educators have the power to make a tremendous difference in their lives of their students. If you've been in the classroom any length of time, you've probably been called Mom, Dad, or some other loving family member a time or two. As their school parent and school community, there are some things that we can incorporate to recognize and respond to students' needs:

Professional Development - provide adequate training for educators to understand the impact of trauma on learning, how to incorporate social-emotional learning and restorative justice techniques

Holistic - Provide a variety of opportunities for families to learn about child and adolescent development; connect with local nonprofits to provide parent and family services such as:
    • Adult Education (GED, ESL, vocational training)
    • Social Work and Family Crisis Response
    • Behavioral and Mental Health Services
    • Health, Dental, and Vision Care

Create a Safe Environment - Meet students' needs by establishing norms and valuing their voice. Greet students at the door to check on them before they enter the classroom. Emphasize expectations, but don't hold onto what happened yesterday.

Value Student Voice - During small group time, set aside time (1-2 minutes per student) to provide opportunities for students to talk about their personal experiences.  Listen to what they say or don't say that may provide insight into their well-being. This may allow you to have a deeper conversation later or take additional steps. 

Be alert - We must remember that a child who comes to school tired, depressed, unkempt, or who continuously acts out is probably asking for help. Likewise, this is a big one for me, a student who has a history of being focused, happy, and ready to learn, but has suddenly had a shift in behavior may have experienced a traumatic event. It is our duty to seek additional support from a school counselor, school social worker, or contact protective services if needed. 

It is important to note that having an ACE or multiples ACEs does not mean doom and gloom for one's life. Yes, I once was a girl who suffered from low self-esteem and self-worth, but the impact of my ACEs are not as strong as they were 20+ years ago. In fact, there are so many people who have stories far worse than mine who have overcome extensive obstacles. So that unruly, low-performing child is not lost. Research shows that all it takes to turn the life of a child around is one consistent, caring adult for at least a year. That's why you'll hear people who've had traumatic childhoods point to a coach, teacher, minister, grandparent, or another trusted, loving adult who helped turn their life around. It's imperative that we not make children think that something is wrong with them, but understand that something happened to them. 

I do want to close by saying that some of these root causes are systemic. At some point, our society will have to address the increase in the number of addictions, suicides, depression in teens, school shootings, bullying, etc. and rally around a wellness campaign that's deliberate in decreasing ACE factors. Dr. Bruce Perry with Child Trauma said it best:
“If 20 million people were infected by a virus that caused anxiety, impulsivity, aggression, sleep problems, depression, respiratory and heart problems, vulnerability to substance abuse, antisocial and criminal behavior, retardation and school failure, we would consider it an urgent public health crisis. Yet, in the United States alone, there are more than 20 million abused, neglected and traumatized children vulnerable to these problems. Our society has yet to recognize this epidemic, let alone develop an immunization strategy.”

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