Understanding How We Adapt to Adversity: The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES)
Stress is a normal part of the human existence. The body’s response to stress enables us to act quickly, avert danger, and even save lives. However, what we understand now about how chronic stress affects us has substantially changed due to the findings of a particular study. Based on a large scale population study in the 1990s, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) has provided significant insight into how we as human beings respond to trauma in our own lives. Based on a middle-class population in San Diego, California, over 17,000 adults participated in the study. Participants were asked about their adverse experiences under the age of 18. There are 10 categories in the study of adverse experiences: substance abuse, separation or divorce, mental illness, battered mothers, criminal behavior, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and physical neglect. Those who have taken the survey can determine their own score which is commonly referred to one’s “ACE score.” As a result, what we are learning is making an important change in how we support students in our school system who are dealing with their adverse experiences.
Specifically, this study has revealed that when children experience stressors from ages 0-6, their brains may develop along a different pathway, resulting in a brain conditioned for quick response to stressful situations or one that is predisposed to a fight, flight, or freeze reactions. These kinds of experiences are also closely linked to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This is a common human development process and we now have a better understanding about the neurological impact stresses can have.
In addition to what we have learned about early childhood development and ACES, we also are understanding more about stressors we experience in school-age years as well. Because the human body is so good at remembering experiences, students who have adverse experiences after age six can also be significantly impacted. When adverse experiences are traumatic or frequent in school-age years, students often develop coping strategies. In many cases, those coping strategies look like maladaptive behaviors. For example, youth may start smoking or taking drugs, both of which help a student to keep some distance from remembering traumatic experiences or in dealing with anxiety. Students may also be more inclined to engage in physical fights or be predisposed to running away when faced with challenges during the day that trigger a memory of a previous traumatic experience.
We generally view such behaviors as bad or poor; and certainly, human beings do make poor decisions. However, what we are learning is that many of those choices are adaptive in nature. Simply put, we adapt to the stressors of our environment. This shift in thinking has helped us change from asking the question, “Why are you doing that?” to asking a more important question, “What has happened to you?” This latter question strategy moves us closer to understanding what has happened in a young person’s life that is resulting in such actions and even closer to providing interventions that will work. A student who is triggered is now operating in the fight, flight, or freeze part of their brain, not their cognitive or thinking part of the brain. This helps educators know when to have certain kinds of conversations about the student’s behavior. Often, helping a student become regulated and de-escalated is the best, most respectful first approach.
Even though researchers are still working to understand everything about what this study reveals to us about ourselves, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have listed ACES as the single most important indicator for the health of the entire American population. What this means is that the traumatic experiences we go through can significantly impact our overall health, quality of life, and even how long we will live. And, because ACES are relatively common, they are something that can be addressed. So, this study is not just bad news about humanity. Absolutely not. In fact, as a result of this study, we are beginning to implement new strategies for helping everyone understand how their past influences their present and future. School staff are finally getting answers as to why a child may be acting in such a difficult way.
New training for school personnel, stemming from the research, is resulting in methods and strategies that help students self-regulate and become what we call, “brain ready” for learning. As we do trainings about ACEs with our school staff, the most common question posed is, “What can we do?” Fortunately, there is a next step for us that is rooted firmly in the research of ACEs and trauma-informed practices with a direct application to schools.