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Nadine Burke Harris begins her must-see TedTalk by referencing an “exposure that dramatically increased the risk for seven out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the United States.” That included 3x the risk for heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year slash in life expectancy.
The issue she is talking about is Adverse Childhood Experiences – or ACEs.
Educators should be talking about them, too.
The Center for Disease Control has proclaimed the ACE study to be “one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.” Nearly 17,500 adults were studied between 1995 and 1997, and the results pretty much plainly speak for themselves – overexposure to high-stress activity and regular stress activation in children leads to a change in brain structure, relationships, and high-risk behaviors not just when they’re children, but throughout their lifetimes.
Essentially, the more adverse experiences you have as a child, the more difficulty you’ll face as an adult.
That edict all depends on your ACE score. So how do you find that? Take the quiz here. It essentially asks you the following yes/no questions to examine from your childhood:
1.Did a close adult / parent mentally abuse you on a regular basis?
2.Did a close adult / parent physically abuse you on a regular basis?
3.Did a close adult / parent ever sexually abuse you?
4.Did members of your family neglect one another on a regular basis?
5.Was a close adult / parent unable to properly provide for you?
6.Were your parents separated and/or divorced?
7.Was there physical violence towards the female head of household?
8.Did you live with an alcoholic / drug user?
9.Did somebody who lived with you suffer from psychological disabilities?
10.Did anybody you lived with go to jail?
The higher your ACE score, the bigger your red flag for Dr. Burke Harris and others who subscribe to the cause-effect of adverse childhood experiences on one’s lifetime.
While an NPR article cautions us to not associate high ACE scores with societal mobsters and marauders, it’s very difficult to disassociate this thought process with the students educators struggle with most in the classroom.
Take a second and think of 3 of the most difficult children you’ve ever approached in your career. Put on your empathy goggles and their shoes for a moment, and think about what their score would be. Odds are it’s going to be above that 4 that starts to cause major alarm.
Additionally, think about where those students are or will be once they reach adulthood. More often than not, we’re going to associate them with some major adult problems of their own, ranging from transience, joblessness, unplanned pregnancies, arrests, drug use, and more. Even worse, we can often see these children who grow into adults and become part of the perpetuating problem. They have a high chance to continue the adverse childhood experiences on children they’ll meet in their lifetime.
This needs to matter to teachers. Because there’s a chance for us to stop ACEs before they manifest.
Granted, if we teach students for 45 minutes a day and 180 days a year, we’re spending the equivalency of 135 hours or roughly 3.5 work-weeks with them. That’s a solid amount of time to cause and create positive influence, but it’s hard to counter even just one of these awful experiences listed above; it’s much worse when these children are subjected to them on a regular basis.
But it’s something we have to try to do.
Dr. Burke Harris ends her TedTalk by challenging us – especially us educators – to think about how though “the science is clear,” we’re overlooking the adverse childhood experiences of children. If a kid came into our room with a broken leg or a concussion, we make adaptations and modifications for them. But if a child is sexually abused or witnesses their mom be beaten for the 4th time this month, do we REALLY expect them to just enter our class ready to learn?
Without looking at the whole child, the traumatic experiences they encounter, and changing the way we teach, coach, advise, or guide students – that’s exactly what we’re doing.