This post, written by Institute intern Libby Baker, originally was published on March 7, 2017, on the ICTG blog.
Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe and Doug Ranck, along with the many other ICTG blog contributors, have already noted that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are widespread across all racial groups and socioeconomic strata. The ACE study's concluding results, executed by CDC- Kaiser Permanente in 1997, presents staggering research that pessimistically foreshadows the future for youth experiencing abuse, neglect, or other household challenges. The CDC describes ACEs more broadly as traumas relating to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, emotional or physical neglect, and household challenges such as violence, substance abuse, mental illness, incarcerated family member, or divorce in the home.
ACEs follow a dose-response pattern, which means that the symptoms are directly correlated to the frequency of exposure to the stressor. Therefore if a child experiences multiple ACEs, they are at a higher risk for an exhaustive list of physical and emotional health issues such as substance or alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, suicide, and heart disease to name a few. With the prevalence of ACEs and their unavoidable consequences, it begs the response of grace and compassion rather than one of punishment from educators, Sunday school teachers, and youth ministers.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, doctor and research advocate for childhood adverse experiences, states that "toxic stress is the changes that happen in the body as a result of being exposed to high doses of adversity in childhood." Both children and adults are exposed to stress each day in which our fight or flight hormones are activated regularly. These hormones are innately good because they instigate our reactions to possible threats or dangerous situations. In the unfortunate circumstance in which a child experiences chronic stress on a daily basis, the fight or flight hormones become fixated in a continuous loop and fail to be appropriately metabolized. Dr. Harris suggests that the frequency of stress leads to a physical reshaping of the brain. When students encounter high amounts of stress, the neocortex of the brain, the part responsible for impulse control, is impacted. Children begin to lose control of their emotions and behaviors because what was once stabilizing their various feelings is now under acute toxic pressure. Children will react to both minor and major threats with vigilance, disrupting a child's daily rhythm.
The ACE study demands an educated response to how we interact and engage with the youth in our communities. As a future educator and past student participant in church youth group, I have been interested in researching how schools are responding to the trauma in children. Schools around the nation are adjusting their programs and systems to cater to their youth who are survivors of trauma.
Crocker College Preparatory School in New Orleans is one such school recognizing the effects of trauma. Crocker Prep understands the unique consequences of ACEs and intentionally seeks to help traumatized youth in classroom settings. The teachers are more informed about ACEs and seek to understand students who misbehave or have outbursts as "sad, not bad." School administrators and teachers at Crocker Prep have altered their disciplinary system in order to uproot the true problem rather than offering punitive measures to an event or instance they could not control. They found that detentions and suspensions for behavioral violations were not effective because the misbehavior was not the problem, but rather the trauma at its origin. The number of detentions and suspensions dramatically decreased over the school year in which the new rules took enactment and grades significantly increased among the students. Teachers and parents noticed students complaining less frequently about physical pains or trouble sleeping when their trauma was more directly attended to and teachers took note that students were more present in class and were not withdrawing from class activities. Like schools, congregations looking to become more trauma-sensitive must adopt the similar measures to meet the emotional needs of their youth.
Re-framing the way we view and understand troubled youth calls for a gracious and compassionate response. While working with troubled youth may be frustrating and discouraging, grace and compassion can help us reconstruct the ways we address, process, and talk about bad behavior. Compassion shifts questions like, “What is wrong with this kid?” to “What happened to this kid?” The different language transforms how we understand our youths' stories and marks the desire to express compassion before pressing judgment. “What happened to this kid” is a question that demonstrates that the trauma is responsible for the misbehavior and is not an identifier of character. Trauma has the physiological power to dictate emotion and physical action and it is our responsibility as educators, youth pastors, and Sunday school leaders to teach students, with grace and compassion, how to regain control over their behavior.
2. Katy Reckdahl, "A new movement to treat troubled children as ‘sad, not bad.'" The Hechinger Report
3. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, "Stress Factor" Video, and "How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime" Ted Talk
4. Melissa Hellmann, "This Town Adopted Trauma-Informed Care—And Saw a Decrease in Crime and Suspension Rates," Yes! Magazine
5. Bruce Perry, "The Brain Science Behind Student Trauma," Education Weekly
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