The numbers are startling:

Almost
50%
of children nationwide (about 35 million) have experienced some form of trauma.1
60%
of children who witness domestic violence are under the age of six.2
76%
of young children exposed to five or more significant adverse experiences in the first three years of childhood face a likelihood of having delays in their language, emotional, or brain development.3
Almost
50%
of children nationwide (about 35 million) have experienced some form of trauma.1
60% of children who witness domestic violence are under the age of six.2
76% of young children exposed to five or more significant adverse experiences in the first three years of childhood face a likelihood of having delays in their language, emotional, or brain development.3

But it’s not simply the bad things that happen to kids that can cause harmful outcomes, but rather the way that the children interpret and explain the events to themselves. The presence of caring adults can help shift that narrative in a positive manner. Those of us in early childhood settings (especially education) are uniquely positioned to help children better manage those experiences, and reduce the amount of toxic stress those Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can produce.

If we learn to better identify, engage, and take action to reverse the potential ramifications of ACEs, we can take steps to prevent their harmful impact on young children.

Identifying “behavior as communication.”

ACEs and their resulting toxic stress manifest themselves in a variety of ways in young children.

May involve externalizing or “acting out” behaviors.

Might involve internalizing behaviors like withdrawal or anxiety.

May involve difficulty with controlling attention or other executive brain functions, so that they mimic ADHD or other conditions.

In the past, many of these behaviors could be misconstrued as a child who is “a troublemaker” or “unable to learn,” when in reality we aren’t dealing with the root cause of behavior. We must be able to see what’s behind individual behavior; how children communicate through their actions. We need to be intentional about trying to identify whether ACEs are a potential root.

ECHO Parenting and Education have developed a helpful infographic that can guide parents and educators through a process of elimination to figure out what’s going on with a child whose behavior is causing concern, starting with basic human needs and graduating to the more serious impacts of ACEs.4

Infographic used with permission from ECHO Parenting and Education. See it here.

You’ve identified that a child may have experienced ACEs. Now what?

The good news is that early childhood centers and home visitation programs can be powerful reparative communities for both children and parents. However, being in the right place alone won’t create better outcomes. For starters, we must be thoughtful and proactive about engaging and building positive relationships with ALL parents. Developing those relationships with parents makes it clear to families that you are interested and supportive in helping make their home, as well as your classroom or facility, a nurturing environment for their children.

Preparing your staff and facility or classroom for success:

  • Practice having the difficult conversations about ACEs.
  • Devote resources to making sure all staff are trained in ACEs and appropriate responses.
  • Have a go-to resource person with in-depth experience and expertise in dealing with ACEs.

Seven strategies for dealing with ACEs and toxic stress

ECHO Parenting and Education has developed seven strategies for ACEs and toxic stress.

  • Create safety – Either with a literal “safe space” or timeframe and feeling.
  • Regulate the nervous system – Find a coping mechanism that works for the child.
  • Build a connected relationship – When we’re around people we care about, our bodies produce oxytocin, a hormone which calms the nervous system after stress.
  • Support development of a coherent narrative – Create daily predictability with routines and presence of reliable adults.
  • Practice ‘power-with’ strategies – Trauma can be experienced as a loss of power/control thus children may need to rebuild trust with an adult. Use our power as adults well by showing a child respect and dignity.
  • Build social, emotional, and resilience skills – Help children learn to care for one another.
  • Foster post-traumatic growth – Use skills such as problem-solving, planning, maintaining focus, self-control and seeking support to lead to post-traumatic growth.5

These engagement tactics are easier said than done. But there’s plenty of help and support out there for those of us in early childhood centers and education. If we can come together and take action, then the task at hand can seem less daunting.

We’re all in this together.

Local and national resources are eager to help you and your organization become better prepared to help children who are experiencing ACEs and toxic stress.

  • Connect with Joining Forces for Children to learn about other local organizations and resources.
  • Or nationally you can join ACEs Connection: A community-of-practice social network (http://www.acesconnection.com/).

Need a question answered?

Or for additional resources:

  1. Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health. National Survey of Childrens’ Health 2011/12. http://www.childhealthdata.org/browse/survey/results?q=2614&r=1
  2. The National Center for Children in Poverty
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services http://www.recognizetrauma.org/statistics.php
  1. ACEs Connection. “What Lies Beneath Behavior? Introducing Echo’s New Infographic!” May 11, 2017. http://www.acesconnection.com/blog/what-lies-beneath-behavior-introducing-echo-s-new-infographic
  2. ACEs Connection. “Trauma-Informed Support for Children – A Follow Up to ‘What Lies Beneath Behavior?’” June 7, 2017.