When several elementary school principals learn about groundbreaking research that has an impact on the children in their schools, they can’t help but try to learn more and share the information with their colleagues and staff. That is just what happened over a year ago when several Peninsula School District administrators participated in an Early Learning program through the University of Washington and learned about the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACES) by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This study, from the late 1990’s, measured 10 types of childhood trauma in over 17,000 middle-class individuals. The types of trauma measured were physical and emotional neglect; physical, sexual and verbal abuse; a parent who’s addicted to alcohol or other drugs, is diagnosed mentally ill, a mother who’s a victim of domestic abuse, a family member in prison and loss of a parent due to divorce or abandonment.
The study findings were profound and researchers found that ACES were: incredibly common; directly linked to the onset of adult disease and the more ACES a person has, the higher the risk of medical, mental and social problems as an adult. While staggering information to process, this wasn’t what drew the interest of the administrators. The brain research on this type of toxic stress associated with childhood trauma significantly damages the structure and function of a child’s developing brain. Children may become anxious and can’t sit still, are quick to react and live in a “fight or flight” mode or they may have trouble focusing and are have difficulties learning.
This research spoke to PSD principals and they realized they needed to find ways to share it and support students who have experienced this type of toxic stress. They began a year-long professional development series that focused on informing staff and providing strategies to support students who might be exhibiting the behaviors associated with toxic stress.
The staff development changed how staff responds to student misbehavior. By considering ACES, it allows for a more compassionate and holistic response to discipline. Lisa Reaugh, Director of Special Programs notes that schools are seeing improvement, “Suspensions rates and discipline referrals are going down and teachers have tools to respond to students in new ways.”
In the coming year, PSD will expand this work with middle and high school staff while continuing to provide social and emotional support for elementary students.