For most people, the holidays are a plentiful time of family sharing. The love that we experience at this time of year is anticipated and remembered. In contrast to this, I often think of children who may have a different perception of time away from the structure and security of school. As a high school principal, I often witnessed young adults whose anxiety seemed to become heightened as we approached any break from school, but this seemed to occur the most during the holidays.
I’ve lived with a misconception for most of my life. I used to believe that children who had experienced hardships were more likely to overcome adversity because of their struggles. I thought that through this process, they had learned to overcome challenges. This is the idea of the school of hard knocks. The more experience I have with life and children, the more I realize that not only is this not true, the opposite is true.
I am learning that children do not have more resiliency because they have experienced traumatic events, they have less. The capacity to recover from difficulties becomes diminished, making recovery more difficult. This diminished capacity does not lead to overcoming challenges, it more often leads to many difficulties for the present and the future.
Information has been emerging regarding the negative impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These are potentially traumatic events that occur between the ages of 0-17 years. These events are divided into three categories: abuse, household challenges and neglect. Examples include being a victim or witness to abuse or neglect, violence within the family, mental illness, changes to family structure, food insecurity, and substance abuse.
The greater the intensity of childhood exposure to any individual ACE and the greater the number of ACEs children experience can threaten their sense of safety, stability and mental development. This impacts current behaviors and the potential for future success.
Our responsibility as adults in schools and communities is to not only learn to work with children who have experienced ACEs, but to also prevent ACEs whenever possible. Most times we try to stop it from continuing to occur. This happens when educators or community members report suspected abuses or neglect.
Although not unique to our district, most USD 113 teachers, at all of our campuses, would share the opinion that we are working with more children in our schools than ever before who have experienced adverse childhood experiences. These challenges impact student learning at all levels.
School is important for all children, but even more so for children who are at-risk from negative experiences. The structure, nutrition and availability of adults who can help is vital to children. Education serves a much larger purpose than teaching children academic skills.