Although I teach college students now, some of my former fourth-grade students are still fresh in my mind 25 years later. Roberto, Janae and Theresa (pseudonyms have been used to protect their identities) all had one thing in common: Their eyes lit up when they entered the classroom. They listened intently to the stories I read them and raised their hands eagerly during class discussions.
But despite how much they tried, they lagged behind the rest of the class. They often had difficulty concentrating; impulsive behaviors affected Robert’s learning. Perhaps the most critical thing they had in common was that each suffered from at least one form of childhood trauma. Janae’s father dealt drugs, Theresa had been sexually abused and Roberto’s father was in and out of jail.
Twenty-five years ago, childhood trauma’s effect on health and overall life satisfaction was not well-defined. We didn’t know what today’s research now shows: that childhood trauma alters brain development and impairs classroom learning.
At the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University, we are spending the next year working to raise awareness on the effects of childhood trauma. As part of our Social Impact Initiative, the goal is to share what is now known about this preventable and treatable social issue.
What is childhood trauma?
The landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, contributed to the understanding of childhood trauma. In the 1995-97 study, more than 17,000 adults indicated whether they had experienced one or more of the following forms of childhood trauma: abuse (emotional, physical, sexual), neglect (emotional, physical) or household dysfunction (violence toward mother, household substance abuse or mental illness, parental separation/divorce, parental incarceration).
A startling two-thirds of the participants in the ACE study experienced at least one form of childhood trauma. In addition, approximately one of every five participants experienced three or more adverse childhood experiences (also known as ACEs).
More important, the study demonstrated that ACEs are related to a host of negative health and life-satisfaction outcomes, including alcoholism, depression, heart and liver disease and risk for intimate-partner violence. In other words, the greater the number of ACEs, the more likely the adult will suffer mental- and physical-health problems.
Brad Snyder, director of the Dion Initiative for Child Well-Being and Bullying Prevention at ASU, credits the ACE Study with moving the field of childhood trauma forward.
“The ACE Study gave us a unifying language around childhood trauma,” says Snyder. “People across professional domains—educators, mental-health providers, researchers—now have a greater understanding of what is meant by childhood trauma.”
The Dion Initiative addresses bullying prevention as part of its efforts to improve the social climate in schools. “In working to respond to bullying in schools, we found ourselves beating the same drum,” says Snyder. “Then we started looking for the causes of those bullying behaviors. That search brought us to the ACE Study.”
If more ACEs equate to more childhood difficulties in learning and social settings, as well as adult mental- and physical-health problems, then early intervention in childhood trauma merits social and governmental priority.
ACEs in Arizona
How do Arizona children stack up when it comes to ACEs? Nationally, an estimated 23 percent of children experience two or more ACEs; in Arizona, it’s 31 percent. Also in Arizona, two or more ACEs suggest that a child is five times more likely to repeat a grade in school than those who have experienced none. These same children are three times more likely to miss 11 or more days of school in a year and are twice as likely to be overweight or obese.
Kelsey Wattel, a master of social work and a child and family therapist at a nonprofit agency in Phoenix, sees ripples of childhood trauma in some of her young clients.
“A traumatic experience can impact many of a child’s daily activities, such as sleep, concentration and eating,” says Wattel. “That child may potentially lose interest in, or avoid, activities they once enjoyed.”
Wattel advocates for early identification of traumatic experiences in children, along with prompt intervention.
What parents need to know
“In order to assist their child with treatment, parents need to be nonjudgmental and supportive when their child is a victim of a traumatic experience,” says Wattel. She adds that parents need to be aware that an event they may not consider traumatic may adversely impact their child. Examples of insidious stressors not measured on the ACE study include being bullied at school, having a painful physical injury or being a victim of crime.
One key to defining a traumatic event is perception. If a child experiences extreme stress in a particular situation or over a period of time, that stress needs healing. Toxic stress is the result of a cauldron of stress hormones that not only affects structures in the brain, but it also changes how children view the safety and predictability of their world.
Wattel uses art and play therapy as part of her treatment of traumatized children.
Parents also should get treatment after a traumatic experience, says Wattel, so they have a better understanding of what their child is going through and can process their own feelings about the event.
Incidence of childhood trauma can be prevented and treated. Here are some positive steps we can take at many levels:
Parents and caregivers. Watch for signs of increased stress in children and seek assistance from a teacher, school counselor or therapist when necessary. Don’t parent alone—if you have concerns about your young child, call the Birth to Five Helpline at 1-877-705-KIDS (5437). Parents of children of all ages can access one of First Things First’s Family Resource Centers located throughout Arizona.
Teachers and administrators. Engage in professional learning about childhood trauma and encourage social-emotional learning environments in classrooms. To learn about trauma-informed schooling, visit acesconnection.com.
Community leaders and policy makers. Allocate resources to the identification and treatment of childhood trauma, including parent-education programs. Subscribe to our Social Impact Initiative newsletter from the Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics to learn more about the effects of childhood trauma and to partner with us on prevention and treatment.