Academic problems often have little to do with intellectual skill and everything to do with personal experiences.
The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study demonstrates a clear connection between early traumatic experiences and physical, mental, and academic struggles later in life. Now Ashland area students are benefitting from this research.
In the 1990s, ACE Study co-founders Dr. Vincent Filletti and Dr. Robert Anda asked over 17,000 people about their health and adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect, family addictions, and other dysfunctions in the household. They found a stunning correlation between ACEs, brain development, and the immune system.
A 2012 article in Huffington Post, “The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study — the Largest Public Health Study You Never Heard Of” explains how the study’s findings can help educators understand the larger context of their students’ health, behavior, and classroom performance:
“Children with toxic stress live much of their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamine, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement.”
Considering that two out of three respondents in the original study experienced more than one ACE, it can be easy to feel helpless in meeting so many needs. However, there is good news.
As ACEs study cofounder Robert Anda states, “What’s predictable is preventable.” As sad and shocking as the results are, adults who know and understand the information can take the appropriate action to make a powerful difference in children’s lives.
In our own community, Ashland High School principal Mike Riley has applied the ACE study to helping at-risk students develop hope for the future.
"’As a school system, we have 15,000 hours with (a student) from the time he enters kindergarten through the time he graduates,’” Riley said in the Ashland Source. "’No other institution in our society is more poised to do this work.’"
Riley had students take a purpose-in-life assessment in the fall of 2016, then asked individual staff members to “adopt” the 50 students who scored lowest. The adult investment in students’ lives resulted in an 11-percent increase in the purpose-and-meaning score by the end of the year, while a career planning program didn’t register improvements. The following year, many of those students were no longer identified by the pre-survey. In other words, positive adult connections made the single biggest impact on students’ sense of value and meaning in life.
Understanding ACEs can help our community support and understand one another, from our youngest children to our oldest residents. Even more importantly, addressing the frequency of ACEs with honesty and compassion can help us prevent them from occurring in the first place.
You can learn more about the ACE Study by visiting https://www.ashlandmhrb.org/ace-study.