How Teachers Counteract Adverse Childhood Experiences with Positive Ones - ASCD
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May 28, 2020

How Teachers Counteract Adverse Childhood Experiences with Positive Ones

Social-emotional learning
Instructional Strategies

Most of us are aware of the negative effect of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on the health and welfare of a child. ACEs are harmful interpersonal exposures in the home that include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and exposure to violence, crime, maternal depression, and substance abuse. But what many educators don't realize is that ACEs can have a negative effect on a child's educational achievement and cognitive skills as well.

In 2016, an important ACE research study that addressed academic effects among kindergarten students was conducted on 1,007 urban students nationwide. Researcher Manuel Jimenez and his colleagues found that children experiencing ACEs in early childhood were significantly more likely to have below-average kindergarten academic and literacy achievement based on teacher reports. They were also more likely to exhibit behavior problems in kindergarten.

As there is little a classroom teacher can do to change household exposures to abuse, violence, or parental mental health issues, the ACEs research may at first seem discouraging. But there is emerging research that suggests that when students have access to positive relationships with adults, the benefits outweigh the adversity.

Mitigating Stress

One component of adversity is stress. For almost a decade, education neuroscientists have recognized factors that mitigate stress. Jack Shonkoff and Pat Levitt in 2010 discussed three types of stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic stress. The authors point out that positive stress is an important aspect of healthy development. It occurs when supportive adults encourage and enable a child to make adaptive responses to stressful situations. In schools, tests and daily required academic tasks assigned and evaluated by caring teachers can be prime examples of positive stress.

Tolerable stress includes major personal losses and events out of a student's control, like the death of a family member or national disasters. But when they are time-limited and a student has access to protective relationships, as with caring teachers, those relationships enable the body's stress-response system to return to a balanced state and the brain to recover.

Both positive stress and tolerable stress provide mechanisms for brain adaptation and growth, but toxic stress does not. With toxic stress there is no relief; the stress is ongoing and unremitting. This constant stress negatively affects the body and the brain. Because toxic stress affects cognitive skills development—and academic failure can increase toxic stress—neuroscience-designed activities can be used to reinforce cognitive skills, like attention and memory, that are affected by ACEs. This approach enables students to benefit from classroom instruction and maintain positive, constructive relationships with their teachers.

A Safe Haven to Develop Resilience

Educators can also protect and promote good outcomes for students facing adversities by increasing their ability to anticipate and circumvent threats. Research indicates that the Child and Youth Resilience Measure (CYRM-12), described by Liebenberg, Unger and Leblanc in 2013, captures the most significant resilience factors. Of note for educators is that a third of the 12 items on this brief measure of resilience factors in a child's life relate specifically to education opportunities and are within a teacher 's or leader's ability to influence:

Getting an education is important to me.

I have people I look up to.

I feel I belong at my school.

I have opportunities to develop skills that will be useful later in life.

Medical research published in JAMA Pediatrics this year used components of the CYRM-12, along with other measures, to determine which Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) are associated with successful adult outcomes. Some of these PCEs include very early childhood experiences such as a secure attachment during the first years of life. But other PCEs, such as access to safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, are naturally facilitated in the classroom. Classrooms can provide a safe haven for students of adversity. Extracurricular activities, school-based child care, and after-school academic programs offer even more opportunity to provide positive interactions with students.

Adding Positive Experiences with Neuroscience-Based Interventions

Certainly the positive, secure relationships teachers provide to vulnerable children are essential for their resilience and ability to overcome adversity. However, teachers have large class sizes and curriculum demands that affect the degree to which they can foster an individual relationship with each student. Technology can help with streamlining and integrating resilience-boosting interventions that directly relate to items on the CYRM-12. For example, using digital tools to provide ongoing feedback aligned to student strengths (I am aware of my own strengths.) or opportunities to practice time-limited exercises that build student stamina to complete tasks (I try to finish what I start.).

With an understanding of how ACEs affect learning, educators can take proactive measures to create PCEs, thereby improving the odds for the most vulnerable children. Strategically targeting the attention and memory skills that Jimenez and his colleagues found were limited by ACEs, neuroscience-based interventions can help students build the cognitive skills they need to achieve in school, thereby increasing confidence and ensuring that school is a positive experience. Academic success itself becomes the PCE that buffers the ACEs experienced outside the classroom.

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