Image of ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences in Schools

ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences in Schools

Mental health and safeguarding specialist, Anna Bateman, is passionate about enhancing schools’ approach to their students’ mental health and wellbeing. With over 24 years’ experience in the education sector, she has transformed hundreds of primary and secondary schools to help students handle modern-day pressures alongside their studies.

In this article, she focuses on ACEs – adverse childhood experiences – and their impacts on students, including their behaviour, mental health, and future prospects.

Students with ACEs

With a sigh of exasperation, you sit for what feels like the hundredth time with a student with whom you have got to know really well through your role as Mental Health Lead. You are both sat in the pastoral room following another ‘incident’ which has led to the student’s behaviour gaining a sanction. They look at you with defeated, yet determined eyes which say ‘well here we are again’.

With a combination of frustration and compassion, your internal dialogue and a nagging feeling of wanting to help kicks in … ‘why are we here again, what is wrong with you?’

But let’s pause for a moment.

Why would this student who is sat in front of you keep repeating the same behaviour and beating the same path over and over again? Imagine for a moment that we decided to change the question from ‘what is wrong with you?’ to ‘what has happened to you?’

Understanding ACEs

When we ask this question, there is an immediate shift in perspective, from a broken student who I can’t fix, to ‘how can I help this student manage and thrive?’

Some students, through no fault of their own, have experienced trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) which even the most resilient adult would find hard to manage.

In order to survive (sometimes for years), they have adapted, internalised and learnt unhelpful behaviours, particularly if the adult role models around them have not been able to show them a different way to manage. Yet, we continue to sanction these students without wondering how to help them reframe, shaming their behaviours, and compounding their traumatic experiences.

This shift in focus and perspective is what is known as having a trauma-informed approach. It also means that we can at times, change decisions as to what sanctions and/or support we put in place for students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences.

Whatever your previous knowledge of ACEs, the fact that understanding their impact on children is now in the statutory Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSiE) guidance, has put them at the forefront of every educator in the country.

Understanding the impact of ACEs is not a new idea or concept. In fact, a study conducted in the US in the late 1990s researched the key impacts of ACEs.

What are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)?

ACEs are defined as stressful events which occur in childhood believed to have a lifelong impact on health, wellbeing and health-related behaviours. In the original study, there was a list of 10 defined adverse childhood experiences:

  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Parental separation
  • Death of a parent
  • Parent with a mental health condition
  • Abuse, including:
    • Physical abuse
    • Sexual abuse
    • Neglect
    • Emotional abuse
  • Incarcerated household member
  • Household where adults are addicted to alcohol or drugs

This list, of course, is by no means exhaustive. An interesting aspect of this original study is the accumulative effects of these ACEs on mental health, physical health, and life longevity. It states that if children have four or more of these traumatic experiences, that the cumulative effect is quite shocking.

For example, in one study, which compared people with no ACEs to people who have had four or more, the people who experience ACEs were six times more likely to have an unplanned teenage pregnancy, seven times more likely to be involved in violence, and 11 times more likely to be incarcerated.

What can schools do to help?

All school staff having an understanding of trauma and ACEs, combined with school policies which aim to shift perspective to understanding what has happened to a student, and not what is wrong with them, is the first step to help buffer the effects of these experiences and promote resilience.

It is not an either/or approach. We can help school students learn a different way and there can be sanctions which are there to promote a safe school environment. But when sanctions are based around shame and social exclusion for weeks, we need to think differently about their purpose and the harm they are doing to those students who were disadvantaged already.

For the student who is beating the same path… they need our help. We cannot fix whatever has led to this behaviour, but we can have compassion, and every staff member can help to play their part.