What’s behind bad behavior?

Acting up and melting down result from Adverse Childhood Experiences

Educators are beginning to get answers to questions they have always asked: Am I doing something wrong? Why does a student react violently to a simple request? Why does another student retreat and sleep in class? And why, even after repeated disciplinary consequences, do some students continue with inappropriate behavior?

The answer is that it is not “why” but rather “what” that is causing the actions of some students. And, the “what” can be identified through the research known as ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences.

ACEs was first identified in 1998 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through a survey of over 17,000 people, asking about experiences they had faced up to the age of 18. The CDC discovered a stunning link between adult health issues (such as diabetes, heart conditions, depression, and cancer) and the adverse childhood experiences these adults had faced.

The adverse experiences identified include physical, sexual and verbal abuse, physical and emotional neglect, mental illness, death or incarceration of a family member, losing a parent to separation, divorce or another reason, and witnessing abuse of one’s mother.

Persistent exposure to ACEs causes a person to go into toxic stress, trauma which affects the brain. With the brain in toxic stress, a person is incapable of coping and reacts with a “flight, fight or freeze” response. A student facing this trauma cannot learn because the brain has shut down in reaction to the stress.

Dr. Sameer Vohra, SIU executive director of the Office of Population Science and Policy and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, knows this from his work with children. He explains, “Think of someone who encounters a bear in the woods. The body immediately knows to pump more oxygen so one can run. That is what happens to a child who is constantly put into situations that are extreme; the challenges cause toxic stress to enter.

The results from 20 years ago are now being looked at much more closely by both doctors and educators. Educators enacted punishments for bad behavior; doctors prescribed medicines for chronic health problems. Neither really delved into the underlying causes of the behavior or the health problems. Vohra says, “To truly understand a child’s health we must understand the factors affecting that health.”
According to Kevin Dorsey, M.D./Ph.D., “The shift occurring in medicine is to look at the social determinants of health.” That is exactly what educators can say, too, about the shift happening in education – looking at the social and emotional issues that affect a student’s learning and behavior is essential. Dorsey is dean emeritus at SIU School of Medicine.

Part of the work is being led by the Partnership for Resilience, established by the teachers’ union – the Illinois Education Association (IEA) – in collaboration with the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians (ICAAP). It is an effort of educators, doctors and social services to identify students who come to school carrying a heavy weight from the outside world and finding ways to help them cope and succeed. The partnership is working to bring the message of trauma-informed education to school buildings and districts across Illinois. It has given a better understanding of ways to address students’ behaviors.

One such partnership is occurring in Macon and Piatt counties with pilot schools looking at ways to address the issues many students face. Teacher Melissa Schrey is enthusiastic about the work. “It was just an ‘aha’ moment for us. It makes so much sense and research backs it up. Now, students are even telling their parents about using restorative justice circles and ways to cope.”

ACEs can affect anyone in any socioeconomic group. Also, having ACEs does not mean one is doomed; it does not mean that having exposure to one or two ACEs will create a negative brain reaction. It cannot be used as an excuse, and students must still learn there are consequences for their actions. What the research and training are proving is that there are answers.

And, these answers are what teachers, educators and other providers have craved for years. The answer seems simple – a caring adult for every child can and does negate these adverse experiences

An educator explained, “Sometimes it is easy to take it personally when a student continues to misbehave. With the training in ACEs, I now realize that it isn’t necessarily about me, but about what a student might be experiencing. I have to also stay calm, step back and give them time to cool down. Then they are able to discuss what is going on and we can talk about how they can handle something the next time.”

Jim Sporleder, the former principal at an alternative high school in Walla Walla, Washington, is also a leader in the work across the country. He knows from firsthand experience that a caring adult makes all the difference for every child. “It doesn’t cost anything to love, and probably love has the most impact in helping students.” Through his understanding of ACEs, he recognized that students were incapable of controlling their inappropriate behaviors. So he implemented innovative approaches. Every staff member in the building became a mentor for students. Results were compelling, as shown in the documentary, Paper Tigers. Test scores skyrocketed. Graduation rates increased tremendously. The expulsion rate plummeted. Paper Tigers and an accompanying documentary, Resilience, The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope, which explores the scientific research behind toxic stress and the ways doctors are helping patients, are both part of the extensive training conducted by IEA’s Partnership for Resilience.

The trauma-informed training and community partnerships look different in different locales. In Springfield, Superintendent Jennifer Gill explains, “We have implemented a program called the Braided Behavior Support Systems (BBSS) with action planning in each building.” Teams in schools identify their goals, expectations and beliefs and provide professional development to others. Plans are made to use various interventions with students such as discussions in restorative justice circles, ways to build relationships after a student needs an intervention, ways to celebrate good behavior and structures to communicate with families. Data is collected on students’ social and emotional needs.

Crysta Weitekamp, president of the Springfield Education Association says, “We have been doing a lot of work over the last decade in support of social and emotional well-being for our students. The Braided Behavior Support Systems combines many of these into a more comprehensive approach, with ACEs as part of the work.”

The United Way of Sangamon County has embraced the work. “We know the relationship between trauma and abuse during childhood has a profound impact on future learning, behavior and overall well-being,” according to John Kelker, president of United Way of Central Illinois. “If we are going to effectively address education and health challenges within our community, our nonprofits must work to incorporate ACEs training and resiliency-building practices into their programming.”

The Education Vision Council of the United Way has been looking at ways to help their funded agencies with training and coordination around ACEs.

Vohra knows the power of partnerships, “We must work with partners in government, education and business because there are other factors outside of just medicine that affect our children and families.”

Since the Illinois legislature enacted SB100 which mandates that schools use intervention methods prior to suspension and expulsion, the focus on looking at a student’s social and emotional health, in addition to academic results, is needed. But that is not why the focus has shifted. The well-being of students and the prospect for their healthy futures are what educators have always wanted to achieve. The new ACEs work helps them get the answers to another question that keeps teachers up at night: What more can I do to help my students?

Cinda Ackerman Klickna taught high school English in Springfield and wishes she had known about the impact of ACEs on her students when she was in the classroom.

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