According to one review of the study’s data by Co-Principal Investigator Dr. Robert Anda, “One of the strongest relationships seen was between the ACE score and alcohol use and abuse,” and my students are certainly proof of that statistical correlation. In order to understand the implications of violence and other childhood traumas on my students’ addiction, cognitive development and capacity to learn, I recently attended a professional development session with Neena McConnico, Director of Boston Medical Center’s Child Witness to Violence Project.
According to McConnico, one in every four students currently sitting in American classrooms have experienced a traumatic event, and the number is even greater for those living in impoverished communities. Young children exposed to more than five adverse experiences in the first three years of live face a 75 percent likelihood of having one or more delays in language, emotional, or brain development.
McConnico further explained that children who witness violence often have trouble in the classroom because their post-traumatic stress can manifest itself as inattention, sleep dysfunction, distractibility, hyperactivity, aggression, and angry outbursts. Alternately, these children may withdraw and appear to be unfazed by their trauma. “These children,” McConnico added, “are the children I worry about the most, the ones who sneak under the radar and don’t get the help they need.”
Teachers who suspect their students may be dealing with violence or other traumatic situations at home can be an essential source of stability and support.
McConnico outlined a few ways educators can help students cope, learn, and heal from the effects of a traumatic childhood.
Because these children may not have experienced many other positive relationships with adults, the student-teacher bond can be the most important gift educators have to offer. Teachers who are reliable, honest, and dependable can offer the stability these students so desperately need.
Teachers don’t need to solve children’s problems in order to help. Listening to students when they want to talk can make all the difference to a child struggling with a chaotic home life. “It’s really that simple,” McConnico said. “Listen, reflect back to them that they have been heard, validate the child’s feelings without judgment, and thank the child for sharing with you” advised McConnico.
Create Opportunities to be Successful
In the day to day work of teaching, it can be far too easy to focus on the negatives, but it’s important to give kids moments of success. “Catch students being good and create opportunities for them to do the right thing.” Positive experiences beget positive experiences and those moments make kids feel valued and valuable.
Clear routines and expectations are important to all children, but particularly for those who live in chaotic environments where they are often out of control. Students feel safe when limits are understood, when teachers express clear timelines, expectations, and consequences.