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As a result of the pandemic, many students faced ACEs or additional trauma without school, the only safe place for some—a teacher’s commitment can help many students stay on track

How to overcome trauma through kindness

As a result of the pandemic, many students faced additional trauma without school, the only safe place for some—a teacher’s commitment can help many students stay on track

Mrs. Reavis was more than just my 5th-grade teacher. She was a lifeline. I always knew her persevering belief in me made a difference in my life, but I never understood the science behind her impact until recently.

Growing up, my life was filled with trauma. Abuse was, unfortunately, not a rare experience in my household. From an early age, I was subjected to things no child—or person for that matter—should ever encounter. Research shows this kind of trauma, also known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have a lifelong impact. However, we now know positive childhood experiences (PCEs) can lower the impact of those negative effects by building resilience.

Long-term effects of trauma in childhood

Over the past two decades, numerous research studies have shown a direct link between ACEs and negative health outcomes as an adult. ACEs happen in the years before a child turns 18. These experiences are broken down into 10 categories: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, parental mental illness, incarcerated relative, a parent treated violently, household substance abuse, and not being raised by both biological parents. ACEs are common. About 61 percent of people surveyed reported at least one ACE, while 1 in 6 reported 4 or more ACEs.

The higher the ACE score, the more likely that child will face lifelong consequences. Research shows that when these children become teens, they are far more likely to take part in risky behaviors such as drug use, promiscuity, and other unsafe activities. ACEs can also increase the chance of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as the chance of mental illness, depression, and suicide.

My ACEs experience

My personal ACE score is eight out of 10. The only two ACEs I didn’t experience were physical neglect and a parent being physically abused. The trauma started early: I was just two years old when my parents divorced and things began to spiral out of control. The negative experiences built all the way into my teens, but I never recognized them as trauma until I was an adult.

So, how did I become such a productive member of society? That’s the question I continually asked myself when I realized my trauma had been so extreme. Don’t get me wrong, I have definitely dealt with my fair share of issues including depression and self-objectification. I still have a hard time creating strong, personal relationships. However, I always thought I came away from an incredibly traumatic childhood relatively unscathed. Then, I found out about PCEs and everything began to make sense.

How PCEs helped build my resilience

This brings us back to Mrs. Reavis. As a young child, I loved school. I now recognize that it offered me some much-needed structure and positive experiences away from home. Mrs. Reavis was just one of many teachers who made a positive impact on my life, but she’s most memorable because she took the time to invest in me. She not only cared about my education, but my overall well-being.

That behavior is one of seven PCEs, which include the following: having at least two non-parent adults who genuinely care, feeling protected by an adult at home, feeling supported by friends, a feeling of belonging in high school, participating in community traditions, having a supportive family during difficult times, and the ability to talk with family about feelings.

My PCE score is five out of seven. So as you can see, I had several positive experiences that built resilience during times of trauma. Teachers like Mrs. Reavis made me feel confident in school, and that confidence poured over into team sports like softball and track, where I made supportive friends. Those positive experiences allowed me to feel comfortable seeking the mental health care I needed, which is leading to a much healthier adulthood. They are positive experiences I now work to provide for the children around me. Hopefully a little extra love will help build a lot of resilience.

At this moment, each of you classroom heroes have the opportunity to give your students the sort of positive experience that Mrs. Reavis provided me. This pandemic is causing unseen trauma in children across the country. Life has inevitably changed due to a lack of socialization, food and housing insecurity, even an increase in abuse. Now that children are filtering back into society, they can begin to experience those positive relationships with trusted adults who can counteract those instances of trauma.

In a future article, I’ll explore how any adult can create PCEs, but in the meantime, just know that listening and having honest, open relationships with children is often enough. We all have a chance, every day, to be a positive influence in a child’s life. I encourage you to seek out those opportunities. The difference you make could be lifelong.

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