As I approach my exploration of this question, I began by examining what skills, resources, and processes could help my peers co-plan learning activities they want to improve. In an effort to specifically design and personalize this question in alignment with my focus area of study, I want to examine how I can best coach and assist educators and child protection professionals to develop learning plans and activities for students with adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress. So my specific question is this: What skills, resources, and processes can be used to help child protection professionals, and educators, plan and develop learning activities that will improve upon their ability to support and enrich the learning experiences of students with ACEs?
To begin addressing this question, I found a 2020 study out of California Lutheran University, titled “Teacher Training for Students Affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences”. Written by Kristina Benson, this study describes several positive classroom and teaching techniques that should be included in professional development and used by child protection professionals and educators when working with students who have faced adverse experiences. Some of the findings that are identified in this study note that “consistency in behavior, routine, expectations, and schedules are some of the most meaningful skills and processes to incorporate when working with students of ACEs”.
The study identified the behaviors of children with ACEs and specifically, what techniques are best in addressing the needs of those students. To better understand the relevance and need for development of these techniques, it is important to note that according to Benson, “as many as half of the students enrolled in public schools have faced traumatic or adverse experiences and one in six struggle with complex trauma”. Benson goes on to note that “children who have experienced adverse childhood events often have significant brain development deficits and their social emotional development is slowed. If educators do not find better professional development training to teach instructors how to work with students experiencing such adverse experiences, we run the risk of creating larger learning gaps for these students, when compared to neurotypical peers”. Changing and addressing the way in which professional development addresses the topic of children with ACEs is vital in elevating and enriching academic performance. Educators who are unaware of how children and students with ACEs can react in classroom settings will likely wrongfully attribute behaviors such as willful disobedience, defiance, or lack of focused attention, as illustrations of ‘misbehavior’.
Developing upon this, and further exploring the area of skill and resource development that can assist educators is in the area of professional growth, I began looking at professional training for educators around brain development, and the importance of resiliency. According to Benson, “educators must understand what techniques are best suited for working with students who are primarily using the most primitive section of their brain, their reptilian brain”. To highlight this area of importance, Benson noted that with the right training around brain development, educators can make small accommodations in their classroom to help students with ACEs begin using their limbic brain. For example, Benson highlights that “brainstem activities include sucking/chewing and rocking/swinging. Knowing that, educators might provide fidgets that allow for those activities. In addition, schools might purchase rocking chairs to allow for rhythmic movement for some students. These seemingly small accommodations will allow students to soothe the brainstem and allow them to begin to learn, using the limbic brain”. This example of skill, resource and process development is an illustration of how both knowledge of brain development and the use of a strategy can represent an educational best practice for enriching the learning experiences for students with ACEs.
In a 2014 article titled, “Adverse Childhood Experiences: Assessing the Impact on Health and School Engagement and the Mitigating Role of Resilience”, authors Bethel, et al. “found higher rates of school engagement among children with adverse childhood experiences who demonstrated resilience”. Bethel et al. identified that one skill and process that educators could develop to better work with students with ACEs is to “stay calm and in control when faced with a challenge for children ages six to seventeen”. Being a trusted adult could be all that a student with ACEs needs to teach and learn resiliency. The development of this skill and process is further highlighted in a 2017 study out of BMC Psychiatry, titled, “Does Continuous Trusted Adult Support in Childhood Impart Life-Course Resilience Against Adverse Childhood Experiences – a Retrospective Study on Adult Health-Harming Behaviours and Mental Well-Being”. Within this study, Bellis et al. found that “adverse childhood experiences negatively impact mental and physical health across the life-course. Such impacts may be substantively mitigated by always having support from an adult you trust in childhood”. Bellis et al. go on to note that “where teachers are considered by the student as a trusted adult, resiliency can flourish”.
Educators and child protection professionals must develop learning plans and activities that address issues associated with students with adverse childhood experiences to best address their needs in the classroom, and to teach and model resiliency techniques to these students. Furthermore, as noted by Benson, “school districts must also understand the importance of working with these students and be willing to provide alternative seating, fidgets, and a campus-wide emphasis on caring, trust, and trauma informed care”. Effective professional development courses or workshops for educators must be developed to best help support and enrich the learning experiences of students with ACEs.
One of the reasons why professional development for educators around the social emotional well-being of their students is necessary, is because teachers are often limited to specific curriculum choices, and very few professional development opportunities that include discussions around abuse. Resource and skill development for educators and child protection professionals should look to explore and discuss compassion, resiliency, and how to work with students who have little or no parental support. A 2018 article titled, “An Evaluation of the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)-Informed Whole School Approach”, addresses the idea that “developing ACE and trauma-informed practices within schools can enable all staff to have the appropriate knowledge and skills to identify and then in turn respond appropriately to ACEs, therefore providing a safe learning environment for all children”. Within this article written by Barton et al. notes four elements to an ACE-informed whole school approach. Those elements include: 1) an ACE readiness tool developed to identify existing provisions in school and gaps which may impede the adoption of an ACE-informed approach; 2) staff training to improve the awareness, knowledge and skills of all school staff when working with children affected by trauma; 3) a school action plan and 4) a resource pack to provide additional support needed to embed and sustain an ACE-informed approach.
So how can we better support enriching the learning experiences of students with ACEs? We identify, develop, and invest in greater professional development training for educators – and we make that training a part of a full and complete whole school approach. We help educators and child protection professionals best understand the development of the brain, and the importance of resiliency skill development. We help support educators and child protection professionals with classroom accommodations to help students with ACEs feel comfortable and safe to learn. And we enrich the full learning experience for teachers and students through the creation and use of ACE readiness tools, full trauma-informed training for all academic faculty, and a school action plan inclusive of necessary resources to sustain ACE-informed best practices.
Barton, E.; Newbury, A.; Roberts, Dr. Jo. (2018). An Evaluation of the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)-Informed Whole School Approach. Public Health Wales. Weblink: https://www.rsph.org.uk/static/uploaded/ec4aa4d9-9a3e-428b-93e41acba3e1e6ae.pdf
Bellis, M.; Hardcastle, K.; Ford, K.; Hughes, K.; Ashton, K.; Quigg, Z.; Butler, N. (2017). Does Continuous Trusted Adult Support in Childhood Impart Life-Course Resilience Against Adverse Childhood Experiences – a Retrospective Study on Adult Health-Harming Behaviours and Mental Well-Being. BMC Psychiatry. Weblink: https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-017-1260-z
Benson, K. (2020). Teacher Training for Students Affected by Adverse Childhood Experiences. California Lutheran University. Weblink: https://www.proquest.com/openview/e6a9600ca299d9e4a8f337a0c38230be/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
Bethell, C.; Newacheck, P.; Hawes, E.; Halfon, N. (2014). Adverse Childhood Experiences: Assessing the Impact on Health and School Engagement and the Mitigating Role of Resilience. National Library of Medicine. Weblink: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25489028/