Trauma: When Life Deals Kids a Handful of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences)

February 26, 2014
Text books and pencils in a pencil holder on a desk

Have you ever wondered why a student is so quick to anger? What causes a child to be so volatile that a harsh word, an accidental bump, or even a look can trigger a violent response? Perhaps the reason is that the child has been dealt a losing hand: a handful of ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences.

Being dealt a hand loaded with aces is a good thing in a poker game. In life, being dealt a lot of ACEs is definitely not a winning hand.

An ongoing US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study surveyed 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patients in San Diego about their exposure to ACEs. The study’s list of traumas includes:

  • Physical, sexual, and verbal abuse
  • Physical and emotional neglect
  • A parent who’s an alcoholic, addicted to other drugs, or diagnosed with a mental illness
  • Witnessing a parent who experiences abuse
  • Losing a parent to abandonment or divorce
  • Having a family member in jail

Researchers have been monitoring the subjects since the late 1990s. The results show that the more ACEs one is holding, the greater the risk for serious health problems later in life, including (among others):

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Depression
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Suicide attempts

How Do Adverse Childhood Experiences Impact a Child’s Experience in School?
Modeled after the ACE Study, research [PDF] conducted by Washington State University’s Christopher Blodgett shows that ACEs are also predictors of difficulties in school. Compared with those who had no known ACEs, children in the study with three or more ACEs were:

  • Almost three times more likely to experience academic failure
  • Nearly five times more likely to have severe attendance problems
  • Six times more likely to have severe school behavior problems
  • Almost four times more likely to report frequent poor health

Research shows that exposure to adverse childhood experiences activates the body’s stress response systems. This activation can have a profound impact on the child’s developing brain. Chronic exposure to this toxic stress—especially if the child lacks support from a significant adult— can result in weakened systems, changes in brain architecture, and lifelong health and behavior problems.

Chronic toxic stress changes the structure of the brain, leaving the child on constant alert for dangers in the environment. In such a “hair trigger” state of readiness, the slightest provocation can activate the fight or flight response in the child—even when no real danger is present. School staff then have to deal with behavior problems.

A thought-provoking website, ACEs Too High, offers examples of how some schools are changing their approach to dealing with problem behavior with dramatic results. They are implementing changes in the responses of staff to the problem behaviors. Rather than treating behavior as willful, staff in these schools are responding to behaviors as symptoms of exposure to adverse experiences. Interventions are focused more on support and improvement, and less on punishment. By creating environments that provide support and opportunities for success, those schools are reporting:

  • Significant improvements in behavior
  • Fewer suspensions
  • Fewer expulsions
  • Significant improvements in academic achievement

Share Your Stories!
How do adverse childhood experiences affect the students in you school? How are you accommodating the needs of students who have been dealt too many ACEs? Share with us the benefits to students and the school community that have resulted from your efforts. What advice do you have for others about supporting kids who’ve been dealt a losing hand?

Additional Information
If you’re a Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® Certified Instructor, log in to find out more about our Trauma-Informed Care: Implications for CPI's Crisis Development ModelSM advanced training program, which offers a model for working effectively with children and others whose behavior is affected by adverse experiences.

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