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?

Education in Crisis

Image from printersrowlitfest.org

Last Saturday I had the privilege of selling my teaching memoir, Tales Told Out of School: Lessons Learned by the Teacher, at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago. Not surprisingly, the majority of my customers and visitors were teachers. Everyone who had not yet retired reported the same concerns:

  • The kids are not all right. The pandemic and the dysfunction in our country have taken a huge toll.
  • The kids are not behaving as well as they did pre-pandemic. They are less cooperative, less engaged, and less friendly.
  • We aren’t going to help kids make up academic deficits until we address their mental health issues.
  • The controversies swirling around so many districts about what can and cannot be taught are disempowering to teachers and make them question their willingness to stay in the profession.
  • Teachers are tired, too. They’ve paid a heavy price during the pandemic, too.
  • There’s just too much micro-management.
  • The pressure on current teachers to cover empty classes on top of their own load is too great a burden.

I recognize that this is a small group of anecdotes, not a vetted research study. But on Wednesday, when I was joined a group of former colleagues for a tram ride through the spectacular Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, I shared that feedback with them. The woman seated directly in front of me turned around and said, “Both my grown daughters are teachers. They’re in two different states and teach different grades, but that’s exactly what they say!”

Research studies about mental health issues for young people abound. I’ve written about them before, and I’ll write about them again. And we already have a serious teacher shortage and a grossly inadequate pipeline of teachers in training. The response, to let college students [Arizona and potentially Michigan] and veterans [Florida] teach without proper training and certification is not the answer. Even in the best of times, teaching has always required commitment, content knowledge, classroom management skills, and training in effective methods and best practices. Yet teaching may never have been more challenging than it is today, so teachers really need good preparation. We cannot help teachers and students recover unless we make significant changes:

  • We need to work on a culture that too often doesn’t value teachers or treat them with respect. Imagine, for example, if the media did more news stories about classrooms that are working well.
  • We need to empower teachers to do the decision-making for which they were trained instead of having screaming adults at school board meetings force administrations to surrender decision-making.
  • Every teacher needs a living wage and a workable class load.
  • We need to expand and develop programs that help teachers-in-training with college tuition in exchange for some years of service teaching in under-served areas after graduation.
  • We should provide mentoring for new teachers.
  • We must staff mental health positions in schools. The NASP has long recommended a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students, yet the national ratio average is 1:1211 and approaches1:5000 in some states [nasponline.org].  The need has never been greater, and classroom teachers have neither the time nor the training to fill it.

I felt so lucky to teach for over 30 years, to know so many students, to work with communities of colleagues. Let’s make sure those still in the classroom get to feel that way. Let’s invest in changes that support both teachers and students. That’s our best hope for retaining teachers and reaching and supporting students.

The Harmful Impact of Social Media

The refrain repeats relentlessly: our students are struggling. The pandemic has robbed them of normalcy. Parents, teachers, and taxpayers fret over lost reading and math skill development, but experts keep telling us that our students social and emotional health must come first. “Eight in ten students are struggling with focus on school or work and avoiding distractions” [https://www.activeminds.org/studentsurvey]. “Three in 10 parents say child’s emotional, mental health suffering now” [Gallup poll]. “More than half of California students who responded to a survey by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said they experienced serious stress, anxiety or depression at least some time during the past year. An increasing number said they had suicidal thoughts” [Edsource]. Ample documentation of these concerns is widely available, and I have written before about the importance of attending to students’ mental and emotional health first if we are to close the academic gaps they’ve endured.

This week brought more bad news. Facebook has known for at least two years that its Instagram app “makes body image issues worse for teenage girls”; a slide from an internal presentation in 2019, as confirmed by the Wall Street Journal” acknowledges the issue for one in three girls [The Guardian]. A subsequent study one year later confirmed these numbers [Ibid.].

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said a slide from one internal presentation in 2019, seen by the Wall Street Journal. “Thirty-two per cent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” a subsequent presentation reported in March 2020. A “transatlantic study found more than 40% of Instagram users who reported feeling ‘unattractive’ said the feeling began on the app; about a quarter of the teenagers who reported feeling ‘not good enough’ said it started on Instagram” [Ibid.]. Other studies “ implicate social media in an epidemic of mental health problems among young people” [Ibid.]

The Washington Post calls out Facebook not only for hiding these research results and failing to address them with changing algorithyms and standards; it also claims that “In some cases, its executives even made public statements at odds with the findings.” [Washington Post].

Social media fails to police itself. Too often it hides behind claims its own research does not support. At a time when our students are already struggling with so many present issues – the continuing pandemic, climate change and drastic weather, social injustice, community assaults on their schools and school boards – social media adds one more layer damaging to the emotional and mental health of our students.

What will we do about it? Will the federal government seek meaningful changes that protect our children? Will parents guide children through their struggle? We need to acknowledge the harm being done and work to change the experience of our students.

First Things First

I just read a New York Times article about the state of U. S. schools today, based on the question, “‘Are American children getting adequate schooling in the pandemic?‘” [NYTimes 1.22.21]. It warns that inconsistency and disruption have been the only constants, that lack of guidance from the federal government has left districts to fend for themselves, that “there has been no official accounting of how many American students are attending school in person or virtually” [Ibid.]. This guarantees that we cannot know how many students have had face-to-face learning or what the educational outcomes might be, but the author argues that “some of the early data is deeply troubling” [Ibid.]

Given the variety of situations, the study chose to provide snapshots of seven districts that, together, provide a cross-section of America. While the snapshots offer interesting contrast, they also suggest confirmation that disadvantaged students suffer disproportionately. “‘Lower-income kids, kids of color, kids with unique needs like those who have a disability or other challenges — the numbers look very, very bad,’ said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy organization based at the University of Washington Bothell” [Ibid.]. They also confirm that students are suffering not only academically but also in terms of their mental health.

An earlier article in The Washington Post supports these findings. In December “A flood of new data — on the national, state and district levels — finds students began this academic year behind. Most of the research concludes students of color and those in high-poverty communities fell further behind their peers, exacerbating long-standing gaps in American education” [Washington Post, 12.6.20]

As a teacher, I’ve always cared about my students’ academic progress. As an activist, I’m working to impact the educational inequities that plague our less advantaged children. Yet I think we’re missing the boat here. Certainly, we need to improve online learning and work for more equity in educational opportunities to limit further harm that the pandemic may inflict on our students. Even more urgent, however, must be our efforts to address the mental and emotional consequences of the pandemic and the strain our students are under. If we ignore the trauma many students – and many families – are enduring for the sake of academic progress, we will ensure that neither improves adequately. Too many of our students will not succeed without more emotional and psychological support.

Last December the Superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, called for an immediate Marshall plan for education, a national commitment to address the national emergency in education [Washington Post 12.12.20]. I agree that such a plan is overdue, but it cannot focus on achievement without addressing mental and emotional health first. Our students are struggling. We’re all struggling. Those who feel helpless and overwhelmed will not achieve academically until they feel more hope. Let’s get our priorities straight here and serve our learners by meeting these needs.