Childhood Trauma is a Real Thing

I attended my final SEED class for the year last week and it was about adverse childhood experiences and how they inform a student’s ability to learn at school. I have to admit I was a bit unenthusiastic about the topic (yes, I know how awful that sounds) because I felt that I have already learned about this before, and I was doubtful that I would really be able to take away new learning. I’ll admit- I’ve gotten just a tad arrogant when it comes to what kind of student I am.

To be honest, most of what we discussed and watched in class was not new to me. But my attitude was rightly checked because I actually felt like I needed the reminders and could glean new information from some of the same texts and conversations I believed I already “knew”.

If you have never heard of the ACE quiz, it really is something everyone should know about. It’s a ten question quiz developed by doctors from Kaiser Permanente and the CDC to shed light on adverse childhood experiences. In the science they have done, correlations have been found between the higher an ACE score is and poor health or health risks. What the score can offer someone like me, a teacher, is to tread carefully and gently with everyone, but especially with kids who are really living in survival mode. I really challenge you to take the quiz to see your number and to become aware of what is being asked. My number is a 7. That’s a really freaking high number, and it begs the question in my brain, what happened for me that has made me as resilient, motivated, overcoming as I am?

There is an incredible TED talk by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris that I strongly recommend- as an educator, a mom, and a human being impacted by childhood trauma. When they pulled it up, my initial framework was “I’ve seen this before”, and as I re-watched it changed to “This is where it’s at. This is what I have been missing in my teaching this year.” It’s 16 minutes long, so give yourself some time.

Usually with learning about the brain, I instantly give myself an out: that’s above me, I won’t understand, science is hard, leave that for math and science people… but this video really helped me form a visual of what is actually happening, and why sometimes we get stuck in our trauma and literally cannot just “snap out of it.” I’ve been guilty of saying that.

In our class, we also watched a clip of Oprah Winfrey during her 60 Minutes episode. The insight that most stuck with her which also impacted me was the notion that rather than asking “what’s wrong with you” or “what’s wrong with that person?” it’s to approach the situation with “what happened to you” or “I wonder what happened to that person.”

Trauma affects us all. It’s an urgent conversation and one that is affecting our health every single day. Even if you are not a teacher or a doctor or someone who interacts with young people, this topic affects us all because who we are as children shapes who we become as adults. And everyone we have relationships with has potentially been exposed to hard stuff.

At my SEED table, we discussed what may have been different for me to score a 7 and still somehow come out able to land on my feet, so to speak. High ACE scores can be combated with caring relationships, opportunities for success, and creating safe spaces. As cheesy as it sounds, I really feel like Jesus was my most caring adult going through my teenage years. In 8th grade, I was elected student body president which greatly empowered me. And when I felt I had little control over my family, I turned all of my energy into school. I really felt like it was one of the only things I could control. School was a really safe space for me. My 7th grade science teacher, Ms. Mason, was a really safe person for me.

So what happens when you grow up with high exposure to trauma and school is not a safe space for you? When you have no adults who look like you, believe like you, and really genuinely make you feel cared for? With high doses of adverse childhood experiences, these are possible outcomes:

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And as an educator, I am determined to look at students with a lens of meeting them where they are at, and providing really safe spaces. My students won’t be able to access their learning brains until their amygdalas can relax and communicate to them, “Hey- no threats here. Have fun, and learn something new for us.”

And so, yes. Childhood trauma is real. I am not entirely sure how preventable it is, but it is treatable. And it is worth talking about, learning about, and working towards understanding. Then, the healing can begin.


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