Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) include a variety of stressful or traumatic incidents which are associated with social, cognitive and emotional impairment, high-risk behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential and premature death. ACEs include physical or emotional neglect, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, household mental illness, separation/divorce among parents, and household substance abuse. Early life adversity is responsible for producing dangerous stress levels which can be detrimental to the developing brain.
Toxic stress, which is extreme and continuous stress experienced during early childhood, can have a negative impact on the brain. ACEs and the associated stress lead to a host of behavioral health outcomes during adolescence and adulthood, including substance abuse, lifetime depressive episodes, suicide attempts, and risky sexual behavior. Childhood adversities and traumatic experiences also impair children’s healthy cognitive, social and emotional development, which can impede learning and educational progress and result in low attendance levels and high dropout rates in school.
In this context, it is important to understand the connection between childhood adversities, educational attainment and health. It is well-established that circumstances in the places or environments where individuals are born, live, learn and play, have a significant impact on health, well-being and the quality of life. These circumstances are called social determinants of health (SDOH). Educational attainment (an individual’s highest completed level of education) is being increasingly recognized as one of the important SDOH. More education increases the likelihood of individuals to make better-informed health-related decisions.
ACEs, brain architecture and learning
Early life adversity can impair the development of the brain’s architecture, which is the bedrock of future behavior, learning and health. The associated negative impact can last into adulthood. Early life is characterized by the rapid formation of billions of new neural connections in different brain regions. New connections continue forming throughout the lifespan, and older, weaker connections carry on being pruned. The strength or weakness of early neural connections lays the foundation for subsequent connections.
The combined impact of genes and experiences shape brain architecture. The developmental process is significantly influenced by the “serve and return interaction” between children and their caregivers (parents or other family/community members). If there are deficiencies in caregiving, or if caregiver responses are unreliable or unsuitable, it impedes the formation of the brain’s architecture, which subsequently results in learning and behavioral disparities.
Providing safe and supportive environments
To address the negative outcomes of ACEs, it is important to provide children with nontoxic, supportive and trustworthy environments. Academic institutions must have at least a few teachers and other staff members who aware about childhood trauma and associated symptoms. Recent research showed that children’s emotional needs cannot be managed in learning environments without physical security, trust, emotional and social support, and unconditional love. The absence of a positive learning environment increases the risk of lifetime academic failure and adverse behavioral and health outcomes.
The past history of abuse and neglect experienced by youth in foster care increases their risk for psychological challenges. Such youth typically experience significant academic deficiencies and obstacles during their primary education phase, abuse-related cognitive and behavioral challenges, adverse foster care experiences, and mental health diagnoses due to complex trauma. Majority of such youth face significant challenges in completing their post-secondary education and earning graduate degrees. Youth with past complex trauma also have high college dropout rates.
Addressing ACEs in the context of learning and health
Individuals with less than 12 years of education have a higher risk of disease, premature death, lower quality of life, and social and behavioral problems. It is important for the educational and public health ecosystems to work in tandem to provide children with safe and positive environments for learning. Schools are being encouraged to incorporate a trauma-informed approach to address the needs of traumatized students.
Nearly 46.3 percent American children below 18 years have suffered at least one ACE, while 21.7 percent have suffered two or more ACEs. Early life adversity is a significant risk factor, impacting the development and lifetime health of children. White River Academy is a leading boarding school for troubled teens in the United States. We offer a safe and positive learning environment for boys aged 12-17 years. Call our 24/7 helpline number or chat online to know more about our schools for troubled teens.