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Adverse Childhood Experiences COULD Account for Academic Struggles

October 7, 2018

Several months ago, a study by Vanessa Sacks and David Murphy analyzed the number and demographics of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on state by state basis. The ACEs they used as the basis for they analysis were:

1. Lived with a parent or guardian who became divorced or separated

2. Lived with a parent or guardian who died

3. Lived with a parent or guardian who served time in jail or prison

4. Lived with anyone who was mentally ill or suicidal, or severely depressed for more than a couple of weeks

5. Lived with anyone who had a problem with alcohol or drug

6. Witnessed a parent, guardian, or other adult in the household behaving violently toward another (e.g., slapping, hitting, kicking, punching, or beating each other up)

7. Been the victim of violence or witnessed any violence in his or her neighborhood

8. Experienced economic hardship “somewhat often” or “very often” (i.e., the family found it hard to cover costs of food and housing)

Another ACE, “how often their child was treated or judged unfairly because of his or her race or ethnicity”, was not included because the researchers found it too subjective to include. It is safe to say that children of color encountered this ACE far more frequently, which means that if anything, those children encountered an even higher number of ACEs than white children. For decades researchers have found that an individual ACE can have a negative impact on a child and multiple number of ACEs, the threshold is typically four, can lead to long term effects. But Ms. Sacks’ and Mr. Murphey’s study drew an even more astonishing conclusion:

One of the most sobering findings regarding ACEs is preliminary evidence that their negative effects can be transmitted from one generation to the next.13,14 Toxic stress experienced by women during pregnancy can negatively affect genetic “programming” during fetal development, which can contribute to a host of bad outcomes, sometimes much later in life.15Infants born to women who experienced four or more childhood adversities were two to five times more likely to have poor physical and emotional health outcomes by 18 months of age, according to one recently published study.16

Their findings reinforce my contention that public schools are the logical venue for intervening when children encounter difficult problems for three reasons:

  1. ACEs often result in complicated and intractable problems in adulthood, and treatment at that point is expensive and prolonged.
  2. One of the effects of ACEs is a slide in academic performance, making schools the first place negative impact of ACEs may manifest.
  3. Finally, “positive relationships” have been proven to be a mitigating force, and schools are a place where children can develop positive relationships.

Here’s the opening paragraph to a summary of the study, which support the need for schools to intervene in these circumstances:

ACEs can cause stress reactions in children, including feelings of intense fear, terror, and helplessness. When activated repeatedly or over a prolonged period of time (especially in the absence of protective factors), toxic levels of stress hormones can interrupt normal physical and mental development and can even change the brain’s architecture.ACEs have been linked to numerous negative outcomes in adulthood, and research has increasingly identified effects of ACEs in childhood.4,5 Negative outcomes associated with ACEs include some of society’s most intractable (and, in many cases, growing) health issues: alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, poor physical health, and obesity.There is also some evidence that ACEs are linked to lower educational attainment, unemployment, and poverty.6 In childhood, children who have experienced ACEs are more likely to struggle in school and have emotional and behavioral challenges.7Nevertheless, not all children who experience one of these adverse events (or even more than one) are negatively affected; much depends on the context in which they occur—particularly the context of positive relationships.

Later in the article Ms. Sacks and Mr. Murphey cite research findings that reinforce the notion that a caring adult might offset the consequences of multiple ACEs, writing that

There are likely to be multiple factors that account for individual variation in response to adversity, including genetic predispositions and other biological characteristics, as well as contextual factors such as supportive adult relationships.

In public education our obsession with standardized testing and budget cutting has diminished the resources for support services in schools. In government budgets, the notion that safety nets are viewed as “entitlements” that drain resources has diminished the funding for the mental health and public health services that could provide the support children, adults, and families require as a result of ACEs. But our nation is committed to fast, cheap, and easy solutions to problems. Until we examine our system holistically and realize that relatively small amounts of money spent early in a child’s life will avoid the need to spend huge sums of money later we will continue to perpetuate the underclass and deny opportunities to hundreds of thousands of children.

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