Letting go of ACEs to support trauma-affected students

 

I would like to see the trauma-informed education community focus less on ACEs, and in particular to stop asking students and staff to take ACEs surveys. The ACEs checklist wasn’t designed for that, and I think it does more harm than good.

For those not familiar, ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences, which were the focus of a CDC-Kaiser study originally conducted in the 1990s.  ACEs seem to have become synonymous with childhood trauma, and are often invoked in writing about trauma-informed education practice. An example of this is the popular documentary Paper Tigers, which is about a school identifying as trauma-informed and relying heavily on the vocabulary of ACEs as they shift how their school supports trauma-affected students.

At a conference last fall, I facilitated a group discussion for those interested in trauma-informed education. Participants were sharing how they were making changes to their schools to incorporate trauma-informed strategies. One participant shared that as a part of the admissions process for her charter school, she was planning on asking students to fill out an ACEs questionnaire. I’ve heard of other schools and staff groups being asked to do the same: to fill out a survey created from the list of ACEs identified in the CDC study. Presumably, the information from these surveys help schools identify students in need of support, and perhaps help teachers better understand how their own experiences impact their work with trauma-affected students.

I would like to strongly caution school leaders from using an ACEs survey with students or staff in their settings.

Limitations of ACEs

The ACEs identified in the CDC study aren’t meant to be inclusive of every possible traumatic experience. As is the case with any study, they needed to narrow down their focus in order to measure and study.  The adverse childhood experiences that were focused on in the study were:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Mother treated violently
  • Substance misuse within household
  • Household mental illness
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Incarcerated household member

Each of these items were assessed based on responses to specific questions in a lengthy questionnaire. When you search online for quizzes to determine your own “ACE score,” you’ll find a boiled-down 10-question survey which asks one to answer “yes” or “no” to experiencing each of the above ten items during the first 18 years of life.

Taking a ten question survey about childhood adverse experiences has a few problems. First is the issue of what’s not on the list. Focusing only on the ACEs list excludes a huge range of experiences; for example, the traumatic impacts of racism – not an ACE. Traumatic natural disaster, such as a hurricane, flood or fire? Not on the ACEs survey. If your intention is to use the ACEs survey to find out what percentage of students or faculty have experienced trauma, your data will be incomplete at best.

In addition, trauma is widely viewed as subjective – an interplay between dangerous events and our capacity to cope – and one’s experience of a potentially traumatic event is impacted by risk factors and protective factors. Because of this subjectivity, we cannot immediately assume that an ACE score correlates to an experience of trauma. Divorced parents is on the ACEs survey – which may be an adverse experience, but might not be trauma. To conflate all ACEs with trauma is a false equivalency, which makes “ACE score” an incorrect shorthand for trauma.

More than a number

To ask kids to take ACEs survey is to distill all of the complexities of their lives into a number, and that number isn’t really going to help your practice, anyway. Trauma-informed work in a school setting is all about relationship – should knowing if a student has 0, 4 or 7 ACEs change or impact whether we build relationship with them?

Speaking of relationship: requiring students or their families to report on these adverse experiences is a risky proposition. Asking these questions may open the door to conversations that educators are not prepared to have, and without mental health training and structures, these conversations may do more harm than good.

Even as a mental health screening tool, “the current ACE inventory was also not chosen through a rigorous process of scientific review to establish the best predictors of health outcomes” (Finklehor, 2017).  With this in mind, schools should critically question what screening information they hope to gain through an ACEs score and consult with mental health professionals about best-practices tools.

Trauma-informed strategies are best practices for all kids. Does knowing how many students have high ACE scores change that? You should assume that your community suffers the impacts of trauma. Use state-level data if it helps to build community understanding and buy-in for trauma-informed practices, while also pushing all stakeholders to recognize that it’s not about the number.

We do our best work when we directly listen to the needs of our community and the individuals within it. Resources spent on ACEs screening might better be spent investing in building relationships.

ACEs as a profesional development tool?

For all the same reasons – don’t ask all your staff to fill out an ACEs survey. Like kids, your staff/teachers have varied and complex histories – and while taking ACEs survey might be enlightening for some, it should be completely optional and presented as only one among many strategies that teachers can use to gain self-awareness. Remember that many of your teachers have indeed experienced adverse situations as a child, and being asked to reflect on and check “yes” or “no” to these experiences may be harmful to their ongoing process of recovery.

Teachers absolutely should have self-awareness of “their own stuff” they are bringing to working with trauma-impacted kids. ACE information could be one option. There are many others. We should trust educators to choose their own strategy for building self-awareness.

I worked at a school for 8 years with a mostly trauma-impacted population. I was never asked to do an ACEs survey, and students/families were only asked to share specific history w/clinical staff, at their own pace. Our clinical director also held the opinion that, while it was helpful to know about specific triggers or needs, you can do the work with any kid if you know how to use the general frames and strategies. You don’t need to be a trauma detective to be effective.

A grain of salt

With all of this in mind, how should we proceed? Use the ACEs for what they are: an interesting data set that helps inform our understanding of long term impacts of a specific set of adverse child experiences. There is a wealth of other research on trauma and its impacts on children, and it’s worth spending the time to investigate different frameworks and ways of understanding this issue.

In working with the humans in our schools, seek other ways to understand your students and raise self-awareness in staff. Respect individuals’ paths to recovery and use trauma-informed practices as a mindset that supports all students.

 

This post is an expansion of a Tweet thread I wrote that can be found here: https://twitter.com/shevtech/status/948221926371221507 

Learn with me this spring

The students who fall through the cracks and get pushed out of their communities need us to change how we approach our work with them.  This change can happen when we take the time and space to self-reflect.

I believe that self-reflection is one of the most important things teachers can do to improve their support of all students, the challenging ones especially. We need to identify our hidden beliefs and emotions to understand why some students feel more frustrating than others. We need to find ways to transform our experiences into meaning and align our philosophies with our practice.

This spring, I’m teaching a graduate course through the Castleton Center for Schools to help teachers take the time for this self-reflection, focusing on trauma-informed and strengths-based approaches to working with challenging students. The course meets face-to-face twice in Winooski, Vermont, to allow us to build community and dive into thoughtful conversations about our practice and our beliefs. In between those two meetings, we’ll read, reflect and discuss online, applying new learning directly to our current classroom environments.

At the end of the course, you can expect to walk away with concrete strategies, problem-solving approaches, and many resources to explore. I also hope you’ll walk away with more questions than answers, and a willingness to carry that inquiry into your work.

Please join me to create a learning community that will help you build your skill set to support challenging students.

Register at the Castleton Center for Schools site. 

a path on a mountain

The trauma-informed toolbox (and mixed metaphors)

I’m looking forward to teaching a workshop this October on the teacher’s trauma toolbox. The goal is to help teachers get started with trauma-informed teaching and learning. I hope teachers will walk away having developed their understanding of child trauma as well as jumpstarted their thinking on trauma-informed strategies for their classrooms.

Trauma-informed teaching isn’t something you can master after a one-day workshop, or a semester class, or even many years of intense study and practice. It’s an ongoing process to support students who have experienced trauma, because every child is different and every response to trauma is different. Moreover, being in relationship with people with traumatic experience can be difficult, and requires regular checking in with ourselves and recalibrating so we can sustain the work.

The trauma toolbox

We can best prepare to serve students with traumatic backgrounds by developing our own toolbox. Not every tool will work for a given job, but if we maintain a diverse set we are more likely to have what we need when we need it. Some tools will work for many situations, while we save others for a very specific project. When using trauma-informed strategies, the range of tools is essential because one student’s response to trauma will never be exactly the same as another’s. This is especially true when “challenging” behavior comes up; I may need to try a dozen different tools before I find the one that works.

As most handy folks and homeowners also know, sometimes our own toolbox isn’t enough, and it’s essential to know when to call the plumber or the electrician. An essential aspect of our trauma-informed toolbox is knowing when to call on others – whether they be school counselors, psychologists, or social workers, or your local mental-health or child welfare agency. There’s also something to be said for the home-improvement show, youtube video or internet forum where we can get a refresher on how to use the tools we already have, or get unstuck when we’re frustrated.

Where the metaphor falls apart

a path on a mountain

While your home toolbox may be used to fix broken stuff, we aren’t “fixing” students and they certainly aren’t broken. Here I’ll use a different metaphor for our role in supporting students who’ve experienced trauma – the hike.

Ever been hiking with someone who hasn’t really been hiking much before? You’re both walking on the same path, but maybe it’s slightly easier for you, because you have more practice. You don’t need to tell your hiking partner how to walk, because they already know how to do that, but you might make some suggestions if there’s a tricky uphill scramble.

As you walk, you’re paying attention to the other hiker, and guiding the way, but the two of you are also connecting, together, and noticing, together, what’s going on in the woods around you. While the less experienced person might need your help at times, you might also need them and rely on their expertise as you cross obstacles together.

You might need to prompt your hiking partner when to stop and take a break and drink some water, but it’s also essential that you pay attention to your own needs, as well. Supporting our students through trauma is something we do together, walking side by side, while ultimately respecting the autonomy of the journey.

The path through healing from trauma can be difficult and complicated, and we do best when we walk it together, whatever the metaphor.

I hope you’ll join me on October 7 in Keene, NH for the Teacher’s Trauma Toolbox workshop. Can’t attend? Check out resources for getting started with trauma-informed teaching or get in touch to schedule a workshop at your site.

Social-emotional learning can be simple, part 2

In follow-up to this post, I wanted to share a quick strategy that is deceptively simple yet sets the stage for social-emotional learning:

Edutopia recently shared this video about Peace Corners:

 

It’s simple, right? Set up a comfy corner, invite students to use it to take a break, add in a little reflection sheet. Yet, there are so many layers to how this can help students:

  • Honors and respects students’ autonomy by choosing when to take a break
  • Gives students a safe and non-shaming “out” (since it’s open to everyone in the class)
  • Encourages reflection and development of self-knowledge through reflection sheets
  • Creates space within the classroom community rather than asking to students to leave the classroom community completely
  • Provides sensory tools for self-regulation
  • Helps students internalize self-management skills that are transferable across settings
  • Communicates care and a whole-school commitment to social/emotional support

Peace corners – or any other name you choose to call this self-regulation space – are a simple, visible way to incorporate social/emotional support. It’s a trauma-informed strategy that benefits all students. I’m trying one this year with a mixed-elementary age extracurricular class – I’ll update on how it goes!

Getting started with trauma-informed teaching

Hope

This post is intended to be a jumping-off point for those seeking to become more trauma-informed in their education practice. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list of resources, but rather a collection of accessible places to start to get familiar with concepts and strategies.

I would love to add onto this list, especially in some areas of intersection: trauma informed and… (specific populations, identities, and settings). Please be in touch or comment below if you have resources to share!

Start Here

The 12 Core Concepts (National Child Traumatic Stress Network) – this is a fantastic resource to give you the foundations of knowledge you need for working with students who have experienced trauma. This is also a great resource to share with coworkers, parents and other caregivers to start developing some common language and understanding of these concepts.

The Basics: Understandings and Strategies

These posts and videos will help you get a “Trauma 101” understanding of the major background information you need to start with trauma-informed practice. 

8 Ways to Support Students Who Experience Trauma (Edutopia) – initial strategies for the classroom

Helping Students Who Have Experienced Trauma (Edutopia) – more strategies and some bigger-picture concepts

Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain (Jacob Ham) – short video describing what’s going on in the brain of a trauma-impacted kid

10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs To Know (WeAreTeachers) –  good overview of some important points about trauma

Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators (from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network) – more comprehensive (while still being succinct and clear) guide around understanding and supporting students who have experienced trauma. Send this one to your principal!

Big Picture Approaches

While these approaches aren’t specific to students with trauma, they support a school community where trauma-affected youth can thrive. 

Lives in the Balance/Ross Greene: essential resource working with behaviorally challenging kids (and many kids who experience trauma exhibit behavior challenges at some point). Check out his book Lost at School as well. 

Restorative Practices (International Institute for Restorative Practices)  – when thinking about trauma-informed practice, “discipline” must be reimagined, and restorative practices is a great path forward.

Teacher Self-Care and Wellness

It’s essential that educators take care of themselves while they take care of others. These resources highlight the “why” and the “how.” 

When Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too (Edutopia) – information on vicarious trauma and teacher strategies for addressing it.

Wellness: A Guide for Teachers (on this site) – a breakdown of the different aspects of wellness and suggestions for incorporating each

Secondary Traumatic Stress for Educators: Understanding and Mitigating the Effects (Jessica Lander on Mindshift) – overview and resources on secondary traumatic stress in schools

Background Information/Learn More

Ready to dig deeper? These resources will help you build on your basic knowledge and hopefully provide some avenues for your next steps in learning. 

ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study (CDC) – foundational research on the impact of experiences which may be traumatic. You can also watch this 5-minute explainer video about the ACE study

Beyond ACEs  (this site) – now that you know about ACEs, learn about why we need to be careful when using the language of ACEs to talk about trauma

Addressing Race and Trauma in the Classroom (NCTSN) – a guide to the intersection of race and trauma with practical tips for educators

Toxic Stress (Harvard Center on the Developing Child) – simple explainer (with video and visuals) on the concept of toxic stress. For more on the impact of racism as it relates to chronic/toxic stress, see this article in The Atlantic by Melinda D. Anderson

The Paradox of Trauma-Informed Care (Vicky Kelly) – TEDx talk on the basics of developmental/childhood trauma and its impacts on the brain and decision-making

Helping Students with Trauma, Tragedy and Grief (Edutopia) – collection of Edutopia resources on a variety of topics related to trauma.

Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (Kristin Souers and Pete Hall, ASCD) – excellent and easy-to-read book covering the fundamental elements of a trauma-informed classroom.

For School Leaders

Resources to guide you as you guide your school.

Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative – download both of the free reports to learn more about whole-school approaches and how to implement a change process toward trauma-informed practices.

Trauma-Informed Teachers Need Trauma-Informed Administrators (this site) – some tips and ideas for school leaders as they consider the social-emotional needs of their teachers.

Image credit: 
Steve Snodgrass, flickr Creative Commons