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Why ACEs are key to behaviour management

An understanding of adverse childhood experiences and adverse childhood environments needs to dictate how we manage behaviour, argues Dr Pam Jarvis

Adverse childhood experiences

In 1998, a group of medical researchers carried out a large-scale analysis of the effects of a range of childhood stressors upon both mental and physical health. The number of effects surprised them, so much so they grouped the most significant impacts (these principally related to violence, abuse or addiction within the home) and called them "adverse childhood experiences".

This was the first ACE.

The second came some years later. Researchers moved from events inside the home to broader environmental circumstances; for example, poverty, poor housing and violent neighbourhoods (Ellis and Dietz, 2017). This ACE stands for Adverse Community Experiences.

Both ACEs are clearly important considerations for teachers.

Adverse childhood experiences

In early life, children create what John Bowlby (1988) referred to as an "internal working model", drawing from the behaviour of significant adults towards them. They learn whether to expect adults to be (for example) calm, affectionate and helpful, or angry and distracted.

Quick read: How teachers can influence behaviour

Quick listen: what you need to know about the impact of trauma

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From this information, they subsequently evaluate their own worth; whether they are worthy of adults’ attention and affection or not.

If this model is constructed in an atmosphere where the family lives in a situation where the two ACES are more likely to occur – for example desperate poverty, poorly clothed, under threat of eviction, battling bailiffs and relying on food banks to get through the week – it is almost impossible to prevent the resultant stress and despair impacting to some extent upon children’s socio-emotional development.

Long-term impact

Children whose first experiences of the world have been steeped in toxic stress typically have higher resting levels of cortisol and take longer to return to baseline after stressful episodes.

Adverse childhood experiences

A simplified comparison can be made between a continually stressed brain and a computer constantly running a program that takes up a significant amount of its processing capacity. Implications for such a child include the following:

  • Fight or flight response always on stand-by

  • Quick to anger, to sadness and "learned helplessness"

  • Short attention span

  • Problems concentrating at school

  • View of the world as a dangerous place

  • Mistrustful of adults and other children

  • Feeling of inadequacy/ lacking confidence

  • Lack of self-belief/ lack of self-motivation

  • May be over-dependent upon opinion/ support of others (preoccupied)

  • May reject support from others (dismissive)

From this premise, we can more easily reflect upon how non-familial adults (ie teachers) modelling anger and punitive behaviour may be received by children whose stress-coping systems already operate at too high a setting.

School-led solutions

While it may certainly be the case that children "kicking off" need somewhere away from the classroom to cool down alongside focused care and support from pastoral staff, imposed isolation and "shouting at" strategies clearly stand to make all these problems worse by raising already toxic stress levels.

Instead of taking the attitude there is something "wrong" with a child with consistent behaviour problems, professional adults should be available to thoroughly explore the question: "What happened to you?" (Jarvis 2018).

If we reconstruct chronic "problem behaviour" as "distressed behaviour" in this way, we can reframe the problem and consider ways to address it far more positively.

Shonkoff et al (2015) found that just one supportive adult-child relationship could blunt the impact of ACEs, concluding "resilience requires relationships" (p7).

Making a change

Does this happen enough in schools? In some, it is standard practice. In others, it is far too overlooked.

From this perspective, some of the recommendations of the recent Timpson report appear to be quite promising, particularly the requirement for schools to retain their responsibility for excluded pupils.

This could prevent children who have already been damaged by toxic stress experiencing yet more adult anger and rejection, and offer potential for pastoral staff to work closely with individual children, becoming what Shonkoff referred to as the "trusted available adult".

This would not be a cheap option. But besides creating an effective, humane response to childhood trauma, it would eventually increase the numbers of functional adults in society who are adequately emotionally prepared for both parenting and employment. And it is also worth considering whether, in the final analysis, addressing these issues effectively in childhood would be a lot less expensive than providing mental health support, addiction treatment and criminal justice responses for chronically emotionally damaged adults, generation following generation.

Dr Pam Jarvis is a reader in childhood, youth and education at Leeds Trinity University

Further reading:

  • Allen-Kinross, P (2019) Timpson exclusions review: DfE pledges alternative provision shake-up, Schools Week. Available here.
  • Child Poverty Action Group (2019) Child Poverty Facts and Figures. Available here. 
  • Cocozza, P (2017) How childhood stress can knock 20 Years off your life, The Guardian
  • Ellis, W, Dietz, W (2017) "A New Framework for Addressing Adverse Childhood and Community Experiences: The Building Community Resilience Model", Academic Pediatrics, 17 (7S) Available here.
  • Felitti, V, Anda, R, Nordenberg, D, Williamson, D et al (1998) "Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study", American Journal of Preventative Medicine Vol 14 (4), pp 245-258
  • Jarvis, P (2018) "ACEs too high? Educating Yorkshire in Adverse Childhood Experiences Awareness", Leeds Trinity University Blog. Available here.
  • Jensen, E (2009) Teaching with Poverty in Mind. Available here
  • Shonkoff, J, Levitt, P, Bunge, S, Cameron, J et al, "Supportive relationships and active skill building strengthen the foundations of resilience", National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Harvard: Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University. Available here 
  • Couper, S, Mackie, P (2016) "Polishing the Diamonds: Addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences in Scotland", Scot PHN report. Available here
  • Dube, S, Felitti, V, Dong, M, Giles, W et al (2003) "The impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on health problems: evidence from four birth cohorts dating back to 1900" Preventative Medicine Vol 37, pp 268-277

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