Saturday, January 4, 2020

Common Causes of ACEs Seen in Schools

Written by OPMP Team Member, Darby Munroe

 What are ACEs?

ACEs are Adverse Childhood Experiences.  The original ACEs research study was done by Dr. Felitti and the CDC-Kaiser Permanente in California.  At the time, Dr. Felitti worked at an obesity clinic.  He started to notice trends among his patients that had a hard time losing weight.  As he talked to his patients, he recognized patterns of childhood neglect and abuse.  The more adverse experiences his patients had in their childhood, the higher their rate of physical and mental health issues.  He teamed up with the CDC-Kaiser Permanente, one of the leading health care providers in Southern California, and they collected data from over 17,000 adult patients on both their childhoods and their mental and physical health as an adult.

The survey, found here, asked questions about family stability, domestic violence, drug abuse, and imprisonment.  Patients also reported on current health data, like obesity, cancer, heart disease, depression, and drug use.  It showed a direct correlation between childhood trauma and reduced life expectancy, mental illness, and major physical health issues in adults.

What kinds of ACEs are students experiencing?

The first type of ACEs students may be experiencing is abuse.  The highest rated kind of abuse is emotional abuse.  Parents or caregivers might be yelling, demanding or demeaning towards their children.  Anything that makes a child afraid or makes them feel like they are not good enough can be emotional abuse.  Physical abuse includes being slapped, spanked, hit, choked, and kicked.  Other objects might be used to hit a child.  Physical abuse might leave marks or bruises.  Sexual abuse happens, usually by someone in or near to the family, when an older person touches a child in a sexual way or has the child touch them in a sexual way. Children can be groomed to do this, and sexual abuse does include intercourse.

Students may experience other kinds of household challenges.  One of the most prominent issue families face is domestic violence.  Children can witness violence against their mothers, and also be victims of the violence, as mentioned in the abuse section above.  Not all domestic violence is physical, it can be sexual and emotional as well.  In cases of domestic violence, the victims are controlled by fear and abuse.  Much of it is psychological and financial, about power and control.  An outcome of domestic violence is divorce.  While domestic violence may not be easy to identify, at least half of all students have single or divorced parents.  Students may also have a parent who is incarcerated, who is dealing with a major mental health issue, or has substance abuse problems.

The last group of ACEs students may be experiencing is neglect.  Much like emotional abuse, emotional neglect is the lack of love.  Students in situations like this are ignored, looking after themselves and their siblings.  They are not offered opportunities to grow, make their own choices, or feel like a part of a loving family.  Physical neglect is also a possible experience for some students.  This could include homeless students, or students whose parents can afford electricity, water, or food.  Some students can’t afford to go to regular doctor’s visits.  Their basic needs are not being met.

What can schools do to help students experiencing ACEs?

Imagine a class of 20 students.  About 6 of them have no ACEs.  5 of them are experiencing at least one ACE.  At least 3 of them have 2 ACEs.  About 2 students are experiencing 3 ACEs.  And around 3 students are experiencing 4 or more ACEs.  Out of the 20 students in class, nearly 70% of them, or 14 students, are experiencing some sort of childhood trauma when they are not in the classroom.

This may seem overwhelming, and it should, because ACEs are mostly preventable.  Schools can focus on building resiliency in their students, to help them overcome the adverse experiences happening at home.  School and districtwide, educators and policy makers can partner with community agencies to provide mental health and social services to students, their families and the community.  Schools can be a part of getting basic needs met, including things like free meals and the ability to do laundry on campus.  They can offer resources, classes, and job skills to parents.  They can provide programs that prevent and reduce conflict, like restorative justice and peer mediation.

 At the classroom level, teachers can nurture relationships with students and their families, including home and community visits.  Teachers and staff can model and nurture safe and stable relationships.  Students can connect with mentors and coaches.  Teachers can get trained in Social Emotional Learning and Conflict Resolution, with ongoing support form professionals.  Teachers who use peer mentoring and circles in their room create a family like atmosphere, allowing children to feel safe, loved and ready to learn.

While this is only a brief overview, stay tuned for more in this series on ACEs in education.  If you would like more information on peer mediation, please view our website at

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