An article in the Dec. 18 issue of The Bloomfield Democrat, “Behavior problems increasing in Davis County Schools,” informed readers that Davis County Schools are experiencing similar extreme behaviors as those disrupting classrooms in larger metropolitan areas.
This week, Becky Zesiger, Director of Instruction for Davis County Schools, submitted an article to the Democrat explaining how those extreme behaviors are partially being caused by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
Zesiger summarizes the research that has taken place since 1985 showing how ACEs are affecting the brain development and mental health of the nation’s children.
The Impact of ACEs on
By Becky Zesiger
Over the last several years there has been a sharp increase in the number of stories in the news about extreme behaviors and violence in schools. Across the nation, schools are struggling to keep up with the growing demands being placed on them — higher learning standards, more assessments and accountability, and more students with complex social/emotional needs.
Ask almost any educator why he or she chose their career, and they’re likely to tell you that it was because of the kids — they like to be around kids and make a difference in their lives. But today, many of those same educators will also tell you that they frequently feel overwhelmed when it comes to making a difference. They will tell you that many kids seem to have a harder time paying attention, that more kids are coming to school lacking basic social skills, and there are a greater number of kids who really struggle when it comes to regulating their emotions and behaving within the typical norms of school.
Although there are many things people can point to as suspected causes, researchers are attributing many of these difficulties to Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs.
The study of ACEs began in 1985 at an obesity clinic in San Diego, California. Dr. Vincent Felitti, who was at the time the head of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Kaiser Permanente, was frustrated with the fact that about half of the patients dropped out of his weight loss program every year. To figure out why this was happening, he began asking patients questions about their weight history and experiences throughout childhood. Quite by accident, he discovered that most of the program dropouts reported being sexually abused.
Dr. Felitti was very disturbed by his findings but didn’t fully understand the importance of his discovery. He continued the work with Dr. Robert Anda, and together they created a trauma-oriented questionnaire, which they began using with their patients in a formal study.
More than 17,000 patients participated and were followed for 15 years. The researchers found that there was a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease as well as increases in the likelihood of addiction and problems with the law and in the workplace. They also found that people usually experienced a combination of types of trauma and that the more types of trauma experienced, the greater the likelihood of later illness and social problems.
In 2012, a collaborative effort between the Central Iowa ACEs 360 Coalition, the Iowa Department of Public Health, and the Center for Disease Control led to a collection of data in Iowa. This study asked people about their childhood experiences with types of trauma: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse in the home, family member(s) with mental illness, incarcerated family member(s), separation/divorce, and domestic violence.
The results of the survey were published in Beyond ACEs: Building Hope & Resiliency in Iowa and showed that approximately 22% of adult Iowans experienced one ACE, just under 20% reported experiencing 2-3 ACEs, and 14.5% reported experiencing 4 or more ACEs. The data also showed that younger adults reported more ACEs as did black and Hispanic respondents. According to this report, the adults in Davis County fared better than those in the counties around us. Only 3.3% of Davis County respondents reported four or more ACEs, compared with 12.3% in Van Buren County, 14% in Appanoose County, and 14.3% in Wapello County.
While poverty is not listed as a specific type of adverse childhood experience, the effects of poverty have obvious negative impacts on people and it’s correlated to the other types of ACEs. Iowa’s 2017 Census data indicated that 16.28% of children aged 5 -17 in Davis County lived in poverty. The 2018 Census data showed that percentage had increased to 19.06. For 2018, Davis County Community Schools ranked 29 out of 330 districts in terms of percent of students living in poverty; almost 90% of Iowa’s districts have lower rates of poverty than DCCSD.
More recently, research has focused on effects of trauma on the brain and studying the impact of trauma on children. Humans have a primal response to trauma – when we experience danger our survival brain, the part of the brain that regulates basic functions like heart rate and breathing, kicks into gear and helps us react with a fight, flight or freeze response. This is essential for our survival – when faced with a life or death situation, the brain automatically makes our body respond.
During these times, the thinking and learning parts of the brain are not as active. People who frequently experience trauma are more likely to respond to the world with their survival brains; they have difficulty thinking logically about things they perceive as threats and respond to seemingly small problems with giant emotions. They are literally unable to discern a real threat from a perceived threat.
This is an especially important finding for schools because it helps explain some of the extreme behaviors being seen. For instance, most children develop coping mechanisms to help them deal with being frustrated, so when, for example, they have to stop an activity before they really want to, they know that even though it may be a little disappointing, they’ll probably get to do the activity another time or that there will be another enjoyable activity coming up soon. These children are able to use their thinking brains to help them reason logically through the circumstance.
Children who have experienced trauma, though, see this as a threat —S someone is threatening to take something from them or trying to impose some kind of unwanted control over them. Their brains tell them there is a threat and they immediately and automatically respond: they yell, push, or hit (fight response), they run from the situation (flight response), or they don’t respond at all (freeze response).
It’s easy to see how people watching these responses could conclude that the child is naughty, makes poor choices, or is obstinate, but the reality is they are in a state of dysregulation – they are responding in a way that has worked before when they really were in danger. A significant traumatic experience or a constant series of trauma can potentially change the way our brain functions.
Of course, not all troubling behaviors are caused by trauma. The changing role of technology has undoubtedly had an impact. For reasons that aren’t entirely understood, medical providers are diagnosing more and more children with sensory disorders, ADHD, anxiety, and autism spectrum disorders. Regardless of the causes, the resulting behaviors present challenges to schools.
In future articles, The Bloomfield Democrat will explain how Davis County Schools are responding to student needs and also explore ways the community can help.