The SchoolWorks Lab EdSpeak ACES


Educators have been suspecting that a, “attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD) diagnosis is more complex than previously understood. One reason for this suspicion is the increase in numbers of students with the ADHD diagnosis. Another reason for the suspicion is that the diagnosis doesn’t seem to quite explain all of the different types of behaviors that students exhibit. A refinement of the diagnosis includes the idea of a more broad characterization of childhood adversity.


“Considered a heritable brain disorder, one in nine U.S. children—or 6.4 million youth—currently have a diagnosis of ADHD. In recent years, parents and experts have questioned whether the growing prevalence of ADHD has to do with hasty medical evaluations, a flood of advertising for ADHD drugs, and increased pressure on teachers to cultivate high-performing students. Now Brown and other researchers are drawing attention to a compelling possibility: Inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive behavior may in fact mirror the effects of adversity, and many pediatricians, psychiatrists, and psychologists don’t know how—or don’t have the time—to tell the difference” (Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACES], JULY, 2014).


Schools are an amazing place for all children, but they can also be amazing when we recognize the condition that our students arrive in when they enter our classrooms. Observed student behavior, as seen in the old days as simply conforming or non-conforming, is beginning to reveal a much more nuanced reason for how our students feel, what they have experienced, and how likely they are to achieve in our schools.


“Brown was completing her residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, when she realized that many of her low-income patients had been diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These children lived in households and neighborhoods where violence and relentless stress prevailed. Their parents found them hard to manage and teachers described them as disruptive or inattentive. Brown knew these behaviors as classic symptoms of ADHD, a brain disorder characterized by impulsivity, hyperactivity, and an inability to focus. When Brown looked closely, though, she saw something else: trauma. Hyper-vigilance and dissociation, for example, could be mistaken for inattention. Impulsivity might be brought on by a stress response in overdrive” (Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACES], JULY, 2014).


If we don’t address how they feel, the adverse childhood experiences (ACES), we will be less able to help them achieve. Simply put, if their defensive walls are up, they will learn less or not at all. It has become our job to see those walls, identify their trauma experienced structure, and lead our students to a more stable, even happier place from which all learning is possible. If we can center our students on themselves, reduce the objects in their way of learning, we can promote the underlying sense of themselves, as the Dalai Lama says, the stillness that helps with clarity of mind (The Art of Happiness, 1998).

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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