The Impact of ACES for Education

Ten days ago I had the privilege of attending a conference about resilience and ACES [Adverse Childhood Experiences]. A pivotal part of my training as a CASA/GAL [Court Appointed Special Advocate/Guardian Ad Litem], learning about ACES had already clarified why some of my charges struggle. They have endured traumas that most of us can only imagine when we see them on television or in the movies, but the research proves that trauma actually causes toxic stress, prolonged or excessive activation of the stress response system. “Toxic stress interferes with developing healthy neural, immune, and hormonal systems and can alter our DNA expression. Over time, multiple ACEs—especially without adequate adult support—can affect the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems and have lasting effects on attention, behavior, decision-making, and response to stress throughout a lifetime” (preventchildabuse.org).

The 10 ACEs originally included:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Alcohol or drug abuse by a parent
  • Mentally ill parent
  • Divorce
  • Incarceration of parent
  • Childhood Domestic Violence

The consequences of higher ACES scores can be devastating:

  • People with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be alcoholic.
  • Having an ACE score of 4 increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400 percent, and attempted suicide by 1200 percent.
  • People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, and more autoimmune diseases.
  • People with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years (safe-sound.org).

Additional research expanded the list of ACES to include “experiencing poverty, discrimination, bullying, community violence, migration-related stressors, and foster care involvement” (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).

All is not lost, however. We can counteract the impact of ACES through the buffering, consistent presence of a caring adult. We can counteract them through trauma-informed care and education. We need to shift the focus from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” and respond accordingly.

Although I’ve been studying ACES, the recent presentation on resilience and ACES sparked a thought I should have had long ago. Perhaps because the research began near the end of my public-school teaching career, I knew nothing about it as an educator.

Now I believe that every educator should know about ACES, their implications, and how to respond to student behavior and needs more effectively. It can be done. If you want to see brilliant trauma-informed education, watch the film, Paper Tigers. It “asks the following questions: What does it mean to be a trauma-informed school? And how do you educate teens whose childhood experiences have left them with a brain and body ill-suited to learn?” (kpjrfilms.co).  At Lincoln Alternative High School in the rural community of Walla Walla, Washington,  teachers and a brilliant principal provide students with that critical stable, caring adult to help them change their lives. Their work demonstrates the principles of a trauma-informed organization:

  • “Safety
    • Throughout the organization, patients and staff feel physically and psychologically safe
  • Trustworthiness + Transparency
    • Decisions are made with transparency, and with the goal of building and maintaining trust
  • Peer Support
    • Individuals with shared experiences are integrated into the organization and viewed as integral to service delivery
  • Collaboration
    • Power differences — between staff and clients and among organizational staff — are leveled to support shared decision-making
  • Empowerment
    • Patient and staff strengths are recognized, built on, and validated — this includes a belief in resilience and the ability to heal from trauma
  • Humility + Responsiveness
    • Biases and stereotypes (e.g., based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, geography) and historical trauma are recognized and addressed” (traumainformedcare.chcs.org)

It might be easy to assume that ACES are a problem of certain communities, but the truth is that they are prevalent everywhere.  The original ACE study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente in California from 1995 to 1997. “What’s particularly startling is that the 17,000 ACE Study participants were mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class, college-educated, and all had jobs and great health care (they were all members of Kaiser Permanente)” (acestoohigh.com).

The presentation hit me like a ton of bricks… why weren’t educators everywhere learning about ACES and adjusting their pedagogical approach accordingly. I vowed to reach out to local school districts to connect them with professional resources. Students today are struggling more than they were pre-pandemic, and they need a trauma-informed approach. I wish I’d known about this when I was still in the classroom. I vow to bring this information to classrooms near me now. Won’t you?