ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic, stressful events in childhood that occur before they are an adult. The effects of ACEs are long lasting and affect a person’s health and education. About 61.7% of children experience at least one ACE by the time they turn 18. This means for teachers in California, in your average class size of 30, that you will have on average, 18.5 students who will experience an ACE before 18, and 16.7%  or 5 of your students will have four or more ACEs by that same time. 

I did not find out about ACEs until a year ago. Upon taking the test, I found out that I had accrued 7 ACEs by the time I was 18, and 4 of those had occurred before I was in the third grade. I was unaware of how much of my childhood experiences was affecting my learning. I strongly believe that if my teachers and administration had known about these things, and worked with me as a child on them, then I would have done better in school.

What ACES are

The questionnaire for ACEs can be found here. It consists of 10 questions, each asking about a different form of adverse experience. These range from neglect, physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Witnessing domestic violence counts as one, but the most common ACE that you will be aware of as a teacher is the divorce or separation of their parents. 

Taken from

Suppose you are a K-6 teacher, and have a small class-size of 24 students. The probability of you having an entire class of 24 students with no aces is 0.00000000027%. If you only teach for 10 years, then the odds of you never having any kids with a single ACE is even abysmally smaller; to picture this just add 90+ zeroes to that previous percentage. It is obvious to see, that as a teacher, you will have many students in each class, with at least one ACE, but what does that mean for you and your students?

Why ACEs are important

image taken from a public health service announcement in the UK found Here

Dr. Vincent Feletti, a renowned researcher of ACEs, who has been studying them since the 70’s, released a talk about his most recent research. It showed that the long-term effects of ACEs drastically hurts us. He found that those with ACEs of six or  more are 4600% more likely to attempt suicide than those with 0 ACEs, and have a life expectancy of 20 years less due to their increase risk of cancer or disease. 

From the graphics above we can see an increase risk in substance abuse, both alcohol and drugs. This comes from the children not having the coping mechanisms and stress management skills due to experiencing trauma at such an early age. This lack of coping skill leads to the child becoming more sensitive to subsequent stressors (Sachs-Ericsson, Sheffler Stanley, Piazza,  & Preacher, 2017, pg. 1418). Since most of these traumas come from the home, it is likely that they do not have much, if any, support in the home to deal with stressful situations. A small survey of educators that completed a workshop on ACEs showed that out of its participants, 93.8% agreed or strongly agreed that a student’s poor behavior in class may be attributed to their stressful home life.(Anderson, Blitz & Saastamoinen, 2016, pg. 121). 

With all this information showing that ACEs can affect both learning and our health, what are we doing about it? What can we even do?

What we can do about ACEs

One of the problems with ACEs is that many people are not aware of what they are. I did not learn about this topic until recently in a class on philosophical and social foundations in education. The first thing we can do is educate ourselves and our peers on what ACEs are. The next step, is to then take that knowledge and apply it to our schools.

Feletti mentions in his talk that simply storytelling is a way to deal with and help mitigate these damages. He found that after introducing questions regarding ACEs on their general intake at his hospital, they saw a 35% reduction in doctor visits and an 11% reduction in emergency room visits than the previous year. This is what happens in the hospital setting, but what about a school setting?

When para-educators, teachers and other educators were asked about their working environment and ACEs, they felt that they were very undertrained in how to deal with violence and bullying (Anderson, Blitz & Saastamoinen, 2016, pg. 123). Another issue is that teachers and their aides do not seem to have more than a few minutes to talk about how an outburst or event played out, what worked and what didn’t work and how they can better help that student in the future (Anderson, Blitz & Saastamoinen, 2016, pg. 127).

Some schools have taken it upon themselves to become trauma-informed. Trauma-informed is simply to acknowledge that these students may have other stressors that are causing them to act out or not do work. When does something that usually requires a disciplinary action of some sort, it is usually best to figure out why the student acted the way they did, rather than simply move onto the punishment part of the disciplinary process. 

An Example: Paper Tigers

One school in particular, was chosen as the subject of the documentary Paper Tigers, which is available on youtube and Amazon (it’s free if you have Amazon Prime). Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Washington allowed filmmakers to interview  and students and faculty to see what it is like to implement a trauma-informed approach to education. Not only was the principal onboard, but so were the teachers and support staff such as guidance counselors and nurses. Not only were the teachers educated about ACEs, but the teachers then educated the students about ACEs. Both student and teacher came to a consensus, that it is difficult to learn when you are stuck in a “fight or flight” mode due to past experiences. With this trauma-informed approach, the teachers were putting the student and their health, their overall being into account and not just their grades. The filmmakers decided to follow four of the students. The students were not doing very well at the beginning of the documentary, most were dealing with terrible home environments and one was even kicked out of her home by her own mother. 

Stephen. A student at Link Alternative High School.

One student, Stephen, went from a truant, alcoholic student to someone who was on track to go to college once the teachers started taking a trauma-informed approach. At one point, Stephen has a setback and begins to panic over possibly not being accepted into college. When he begins to become truant again, one of his mentor teachers sends him text simply asking him how he is doing. Stephen begins to blame his teacher for everything and cursing him out. Despite this lashing out, his teacher only responds that he doesn’t care about the school work, or school, but simply wants to know if Stephen is ok and for Stephen to know that he loves him. This shows that his teacher put Stephen’s health and wellbeing over the schoolwork. 

An alternative to help yourself as an educator

One of the most important things to combat ACEs and their effects is early prevention and intervention (Walkey & Cox, 2013, pg. 123-126). A positive learning and nurturing environment is key to academic success for anyone, and it just so happens that is what benefits those suffering from ACEs as well, a way to be more trauma-informed and response is to remember an acronym, CAPPD, which is outlined in the graphic below.

Building Trauma-Informed Schools and Communities
Meg Walkley and Tory L. Cox (2013)

The magnitude that ACEs has on a child’s trajectory later in life is huge. It is impossible to ignore when 67% of children have at least one ACE. While there are multiple ways to combat it, through either having social workers on school grounds, having an entire school take a trauma-informed approach towards education, or even simply using CAPPD and being aware of how we interact with our students. We can use this information to dictate what laws we vote on, when we look at what school districts we want to work at or what schools we send our children to. We should reflect on our own experiences as children, and think about how if we or our teachers were aware of how our struggles affected us, maybe we’d all be a little better off.