Acting up and melting down result from Adverse Childhood Experiences
By Cinda Ackerman Klickna, IEA President
Educators are beginning to get answers to questions they have always asked: Am I doing something wrong? Why does a student react violently to a simple request? Why does another student retreat and sleep in class? And why, even after repeated disciplinary consequences, do some students continue with inappropriate behavior?
The answer is that it is not “why” but rather “what” that is causing the actions of some students. And, the “what” can be identified through the research known as ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences.
ACEs was first identified in 1998 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through a survey of over 17,000 people, asking about experiences they had faced up to the age of 18. The CDC discovered a stunning link between adult health issues (such as diabetes, heart conditions, depression, and cancer) and the adverse childhood experiences these adults had faced.
The adverse experiences identified include physical, sexual and verbal abuse, physical and emotional neglect, mental illness, death or incarceration of a family member, losing a parent to separation, divorce or another reason, and witnessing abuse of one’s mother.
Persistent exposure to ACEs causes a person to go into toxic stress, trauma which affects the brain. With the brain in toxic stress, a person is incapable of coping and reacts with a “flight, fight or freeze” response. A student facing this trauma cannot learn because the brain has shut down in reaction to the stress.
Dr. Sameer Vohra, SIU executive director of the Office of Population Science and Policy and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, knows this from his work with children. He explains, “Think of someone who encounters a bear in the woods. The body immediately knows to pump more oxygen so one can run. That is what happens to a child who is constantly put into situations that are extreme; the challenges cause toxic stress to enter.
The results from 20 years ago are now being looked at much more closely by both doctors and educators. Educators enacted punishments for bad behavior; doctors prescribed medicines for chronic health problems. Neither really delved into the underlying causes of the behavior or the health problems. Vohra says, “To truly understand a child’s health we must understand the factors affecting that health.”