ACEs and mental well being – how education must respond

ACEs and mental well being – how education must respond

The movement to increase recognition of mental well being – its significance, its effects and its pervasiveness – is going strong. More than ever before, it is seen as of high importance and consequence.

While we should be grateful for these forward steps, though, there remains work to be done. Doing so entails a deeper look at Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, a set of 10 childhood adversities which have been shown to cause numerous physical and mental health difficulties throughout life. Given that ACEs affect around 50% of the UK population (and an even higher number in less affluent areas), their relationship to mental health issues in this country is likely to be a strong one.

Their effects take hold from early on in life, going on to impact behaviour, aggression and ability to form positive relationships. As the child grows up, these effects are amplified. Because of this, the education system is a prime site for the trauma of ACEs to be observed and responded to. Schools are well-placed to look at behaviour, performance and social ability through the lens of childhood adversity. By doing this, they will better understand each student’s mental state and its determinants. This represents an early step in approaching education in a ‘trauma-informed’ way.

What is trauma-informed education?

Trauma-informed education is part of a wider trauma-informed movement, which calls for a heightened understanding of people’s experiences of trauma – and the effects thereof – across different domains of society. A trauma-informed school system would focus on students’ sensitivity to past trauma, as well as how their experiences determine their response to different teaching styles and learning environments.

These responses differ because our brains develop according to formative experiences in the early years. People whose brains have adapted, or maladapted, as a result of adversity will interpret events and feelings in different ways. For example, a child who has experienced fear or violence may become hyper-alert, over-reactive and highly oppositional in the face of discipline or restrictions. Similarly, a child who has experienced neglect may struggle to form trusting relationships with school staff.

A trauma-informed education system could hugely benefit children with such adaptations. Comprehensive implementation would likely result in improved wellbeing, more complete social and emotional development, and a system which better involves families and the surrounding community (because understanding a child’s experiences necessitates connecting to their wider life, rather than siloing their schooling). On top of this, evidence suggests that students’ attainment would greatly improve. Indeed, it makes sense that a child who feels safe, looked after and appreciated would also feel more able to learn.

Becoming a trauma-informed school

A move to a trauma-informed approach to schooling now would be a timely one. Increasingly, schools face the difficulties of disengagement from students and their families. This, combined with a governmental fixation on attainment, has led to a culture where school exclusions are common. As WAVE’s recent report has shown, school exclusion very often condemns children to a life of social exclusion. Similarly, schools risk re-traumatising children who have faced adversity by failing to respond to their individual needs. So how could these be avoided?

There is no standard template for becoming trauma-informed: just as traumatised children have individual needs which must be responded to, schools have their own specific circumstances and challenges. That said, we can identify a few key foundational steps on which this transformation can be built.

For example, we can shift how professionals see and deal with ‘bad’ behaviour. Currently, children with challenging behaviour tend to be seen as problematic. Often, though, they are behaving in a way that is symptomatic of past trauma. Understanding that a child’s behaviour is a response to past experiences – and a way of communicating their feelings and needs – will encourage teachers to see them as needing help rather than being deliberately disruptive.

We can also ensure that staff are appropriately trained and educated. Doing so would mean training them to identify relevant issues and risks. These would include existing mental health issues, which may present in different ways. Beyond this, professionals should be able to identify any causal factors in a child’s life which indicate the presence of ACEs (or the risk of them occurring). We can also help staff understand what kind of delivery styles may trigger issues or exacerbate their negative effects. 

Finally, certain principles must be adopted. Focus must be given to the primacy of emotional wellbeing, both as a determinant of and additional to educational attainment. The importance of stable and trusting relationships with adults must be recognised and considered foundational to all school activity. Behaviour must be seen as a symptom of earlier or current trauma and considered a reflection of a child’s life, both in and out of school. Finally, linking with this, no child should be seen as a problem rather than a product of their experiences.

Through implementing these initial actions, a huge difference can be made. We would begin to see more schools linking with services and families. This enables better understanding of children beyond their school experience, as well as enrichment of their wider lives. Such care would surely result in students with enhanced emotional and academic development. The mental well being of our citizens would stand to improve greatly as a result.