Advancing Learning About Childhood Trauma

Learning About Childhood Trauma

I was trained in urban universities who naturally study urban schools and students at risk. In twenty years of research on the arts and student achievement I find that the arts help these students achieve at greater levels. In my reports I detail the demographics of these populations by including the % of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Although this demographic speaks to some of the risks that our urban students face, my research keeps finding more risks and more benefits. The arts are a protective influence on these students at risk, but their risks are not just poverty, not just urban, and not just easy to identify. In fact, the larger issue is that students face a range of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) more generally called, “Childhood Trauma,” that we now know should be included when defining the risk students face to advancing their learning.

What are ACEs?

“The term Adverse Childhood experience (ACEs) refers to a range of events that a child can experience, which leads to stress and can result in trauma and chronic stress responses. Multiple, chronic or persistent stress can impact a child’s developing brain and has been linked in numerous studies to a variety of high-risk behaviors, chronic diseases and negative health outcomes in adulthood such as smoking, diabetes and heart disease. According to the CDC, Adverse childhood experiences are broken down into three groups including abuse, household challenges, and neglect. The presence of adverse childhood experiences can lead to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, and low life potential or early death” (Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, CAHMI).

Childhood Trauma Initiatives, Fact Sheets & Data

From Sesame Street to Main Street, parents and educators are working hard to bring these risks to a more general popluation as well as more carefully defining who is at risk for ACEs. Although researchers are generally aware of these Adverse Childhood Experiences, their research could be defined, controlled for, and explained with better measurement of childhood risks.

“October 6, 2017: As a part of the Sesame Workshop’s “Sesame Street in Communities” initiative on helping children cope with traumatic experiences, the CAHMI has developed a fact sheet on the prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) among US children and youth, using newly released data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health. This fact sheet is the first in a series of briefs that will explore ACEs along with factors that can mitigate the effects of trauma and toxic stress, including family relationships & resilience, social & emotional skills, and family-centered care. Additionally, we have created a high-level summary that gives an overview of the National Agenda to Address ACEs, recently published in Academic Pediatrics” (Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, CAHMI).

Redefine the Logic Model for Research In Education to Improve Education Policy Nationwide

For example, many school reform strategies define the logic model as:

  1. Urban Kids at risk
  2. Intervention, (e.g., new teaching strategy) will help them learn better
  3. Measure the intervention success by standardize test

A redefined logic model might look like this:

  1. Not just urban kids—but the general population—all kids come with these risk factors.
  2. Roughly 4 out of 10 children everywhere in the US has one or more ACEs
  3. Choose an intervention that considers these more accurate definitions
  4. Select research design to more accurately measure the effect of these ACEs on school reform
  5. More accurate measurement would indicate more qualitative measures
  6. Find out how ACES affect school reform and link better policy recommendation to this research

Define Adverse Childhood Experience

The logic model for research in education could be more accurately refined if these new factors were more accurately defined and measured. A new logic model, based on the increased accuracy needed to measure the risk factors of ACEs, may begin to look like this list put together by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

  1. “Somewhat often/very often hard to get by on income
  2. Parent/guardian divorced or separated
  3. Parent/guardian died
  4. Parent/guardian served time in jail
  5. Saw or heard violence in the home
  6. Victim of violence or witness violence in neighborhood
  7. Lived with anyone mentally ill, suicidal, or depressed
  8. Lived with anyone with alcohol or drug problem
  9. Often treated or judged unfairly due to race/ethnicity” (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation).

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Key findings from the new data analysis include:

“ACEs impact children and families across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

  • White children are less likely to have ACEs than Hispanic or black children, but they make up the plurality of all children who have had ACEs. Roughly 40 percent of white children have one or more ACEs, compared to 51 percent of Hispanic children and nearly 64 percent of black children. But in part because of demographics, 46 percent of children who have had one or more ACEs are white, whereas 27 percent are Hispanic and 17 percent are black.
  • ACEs are more prevalent among children in low-income families—62 percent of children with family incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level have had at least one ACEs. But they occur among children at all income levels—26 percent of children in families with incomes higher than 400 percent of the federal poverty level have had one or more ACEs as well.

ACEs impact a child’s social emotional development and chances of school success.

  • Children ages 3 to 5 who have had two or more ACEs are over four times more likely to have trouble calming themselves down, be easily distracted, and have a hard time making and keeping friends.
  • More than three out of four children ages 3 to 5 who have been expelled from preschool also had ACEs.
  • Children ages 6 to 17 who have had two or more ACEs are twice as likely to be disengaged from school than are peers who have had no ACEs.

Supportive relationships and teaching resilience skills can mitigate the effects of ACEs.

  • Children ages 6 to 17 who have had two or more ACEs but learned to stay calm and in control when faced with challenges are over three times more likely to be engaged in school compared to peers who have not learned these skills.
  • Children whose parents report “always” having positive communication with their child’s health care providers are over 1.5 times more likely to have family routines and habits that can protect against ACEs, such as eating family meals together, reading to children, limiting screen time, and not using tobacco at home” (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation).

Change Education Policy

“ACEs and other traumatic events don’t just affect an individual child—families, neighborhoods and communities all bear the brunt of these difficult circumstances, which add up over time,” said Christina Bethell, PhD, director of CAHMI. “If a child’s stress and unhealed trauma leads to acting out in class, that disruption is felt by the other children in the room as well as the teacher. These impacts require the healing of trauma at a family, community, and societal level. Practitioners and policymakers should respond to these new data by advancing strategies that can both prevent ACEs in the first place and support families and communities as they learn and heal.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports a range of policies to help prevent ACEs from occurring, and help families respond to them, including:

  • Policies like paid family leave and home visiting to ensure that parents and caregivers have the time, knowledge, and resources they need to support their children.
  • Policies that can improve access to and the quality of child care and early education.
  • Policies that can help create healthier communities such as those focused on safe affordable housing, access to healthy foods and community violence prevention” (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation).

The links provided in this post point to a much larger role that defining students at risk should play in educational definition, design and policy recommendations.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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