This is not about gun reform; though it plays a part.
This is not about blame; though there is enough to go around.
This is simply about me sharing with you what I have learned about children who have experienced adversity.
I am not talking about the kind of adversity that grows a kids’ character and teaches them about life and it’s hard knocks. This is not about excuses for kids behavior; it’s about causes. And before you jump down my throat about raising snowflakes, hear me out and have a look at the science…
I have a pit in my stomach as I write. My eyes keep watering and it’s hard to see the keyboard. All I wanted to do yesterday was crawl under the covers and stay in bed. Maybe it is because of all the research I have been doing lately on trauma and it’s effects on kids, but this latest school tragedy has hit me harder than most. And based on twitter and FB, it’s hitting you hard too.
I keep hearing the words of the newscasters. “Were there any warning signs?
Yes. Damn it. Yes, there were warning signs.
The talking heads keep asking, “Why do the shooters shoot?” I don’t have all the answers, but I am pretty confident I know a very big piece of the puzzle.
Without fail all of the school/church shooters have experienced one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). And the toxic stress that results from those ACEs have altered their brains and bodies; and the evidence is in their behavior.
And there were warning signs. There are always warning signs.
And the majority of our schools are not equipped to recognize or deal with the real life, messy effects of students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences ( ACEs)
So here is what I have learned as I have tried to give my own children all they have needed to heal from their ACEs
In the 1990’s Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Robert Anda along with Kaiser Permanente and the CDC conducted a Study of 17,300 middle class adults in what became known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. The data showed the direct correlation between the number of ACEs and health issues as adults like obesity, addiction, heart disease, auto immune diseases, and more. (sounds like common sense doesn’t’ it?) And as a result of this study, we now know the effects of the toxic stress, caused by these adversities, on children and their brains and bodies
“ACEs are defined as some of the most intensive and frequently occurring sources of stress that children (from birth to 18)might suffer in life. These range from physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect, witnessing violence in the home, living with an alcohol/or substance abuser, and community violence” -Jim Sporleder The Trauma Informed School
Felitti and Anda created the following list of the most common ACEs. Your ACE score is one point for each of the ACEs that you have experienced from birth to 18.
And this is what science has shown us:
“These types of chronic adversities change the architecture of a child’s’ brain, altering the expression of genes that control stress hormone output, triggering an overactive inflammatory stress response for life, and predisposing the child to adult disease. ACE research shows that 64 percent of adults faced one ACE in their childhood, and 40 percent faced two or more.” -Donna Jackson Nakazawa
That means almost half of you reading this have at least one or more ACE.
And if you are a teacher, think of your students and the possible number of ACEs in your classroom.
From what the news is reporting about the shooter, his ACE score is at a minimum 3; but my guess is it is probably higher.
The ACE study has shown us that children with multiple ACEs are bathing in stress hormones that leave them in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze; also known as survival mode. These are the students who are viewed as “the problems”. A study out of Washington State University showed that students who had at least 3 ACEs were three times more likely to fail academically, 5 times more likely to be truant, and 6 times more likely to have behavioral problems.
Without going into too much neuroscience, students living with this toxic stress are operating with their primitive or reptilian brain (amygdala), and the top part of the brain that controls their emotions and behavior and learning (neocortex) is not accessible.
” When the student is living under high amounts of stress or has had an intense history of trauma, this top-down control system fails and the lower parts of the brain become more dominant. They physiologically cannot make appropriate decisions or calm themselves when they are functioning from a bottom up control. They are in survival: their brains are flooded with the stress hormone, cortisol” -Jim Sporleder
So what? How is this science going to stop children from being murdered in their classrooms by other students.
I don’t know that it will, but if our schools start looking at our students through a trauma sensitive lens, we can start to make a difference in some of these students lives; before the shooting happens.
We have to start implementing strategies that help our students return to a calm brain and to a regulated stress response. Traditional discipline has not proven to be the answer. Zero Tolerance with its’ suspensions and expulsions does not address the underlying cause of the behaviors; and many times can make the situation worse. Our locked doors and security cameras and shooter drills are not preventing it from happening.
The science and data show that if children with high ACE scores have at least one stable, caring and safe adult in their lives, they can build resiliency and learn to overcome the effects of the toxic stress. It takes time. It takes relationship and connection. And many times, the only stable, caring person in that child’s life is a teacher.
We have to focus on the “before the shooting”.
What if we start asking our students “what happened to you?” instead of “what is wrong with you?”
I highly recommend the documentary Paper Tigers. It follows a school in Washington State that implements a Trauma Informed School approach with life altering results for their students, the teachers, and the almighty test results.
I wonder if the shooter had attended a school that was implementing a trauma sensitive curriculum would the outcome be any different?
I know the answer is not as simple as knowing what our students ACE score is, but it’s a start. If we can educate ourselves on the effects of toxic stress on our students, and find ways to get them from a disregulated stress response to a regulated one (and there are proven ways to make this happen) we can begin to make a change in our students, our classrooms, and our world.
I dare say most teachers got into teaching because they wanted to make a difference in a child’s life. (It is certainly not for the pay or the chance to hold their bladders for 8 hours a day.) I know It is why I became a teacher.
What if we can begin to implement strategies that address students with a high ACE score? What if those strategies can help a child succeed and a teacher to have a classroom with fewer distractions and discipline issues?
I know it does not fall solely on our teachers shoulders to reach these children that have been impacted by childhood trauma, but many times they can be the difference these hurting children so desperately need.
I am attending a Trauma Sensitive Schools conference this week and I am anxious to become better equipped to share what I am learning about children and toxic stress in the classroom.
And I am ready to be a small part of the solution to one day ending these school tragedies.
If you are a teacher and are interested in learning more about the ACE study and Trauma Sensitive Schools, I will be holding a focus group in March. Email me your name and contact information and I will be in touch. Suzanne_pease@yahoo.com
The Trauma Informed School -Jim Sporleder
Childhood Disrupted- How your Biography Becomes Your Biology And How You Can Heal -Donna Jackson Nakazawa
Paper Tigers, A documentary See Trailer Here
Resilience The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope, A documentary See Trailer Here
Ted Talk on ACEs Listen to Ted Talk here