A.C.E. and The Right to Learn

It is common practice for many private kindergartens to interview children as part of their admission process.  While part of the focus of these interviews is to evaluate the academic acumen of the applicant, many interviewers also subject children to a variety of situations designed to test their ability to handle stress, regulate their emotions, and interact with people in a socially appropriate manner.

While I do agree that every school should have the right to determine its own standards of admission, I think these entrance interviews have become increasingly more rigorous over time.  In my opinion, I do not always find it appropriate to determine a child’s eligibility for education by evaluating their ability to participate in traditional learning environments or competently self-regulate.  There is so much more to a child than can ever be seen in an hour long interview.  Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences tells us that each child isn’t just above or below an age-appropriate benchmark for their development; for each area they need improvement on, there is another in which they likely excel.  Particularly for children with autism spectrum disorders, mental disabilities, social anxiety, and difficult family circumstances, passing the social-emotional portion of an admission interview can seem like a Sisyphean task.  Many of these children possess qualities such as incredible intellect, insatiable curiosity, powerful leadership abilities, or intense empathy to which many interviewers end up turning a blind eye.  Children possess a hundred languages, so it seems absurd to prioritize a few at the expense of all the rest.

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From what I have witnessed, children with high ACE scores are one of a few demographics of children who have tremendous difficulty with admission and continued enrollment in schools, especially at a young age.  I share a belief with many other educators that every child deserves to be able to receive quality schooling regardless of their race, creed, religion, ability, or socio-economic status.  I also believe in the Whole Child Approach’s assertion that every child has a right to feel safe in the places they live, learn, play, and work.  Children with trauma or difficult family circumstances sometimes manifest behaviors that make other students and even teachers uncomfortable or afraid. But the benefits they receive from the opportunity to learn in a kind and judgement-free environment can become the linchpin for their future well-being.  I believe that Reggio educators are particularly well-suited to cultivating the kind of environments and student relationships that can make a significant difference in the lives of at-risk children.

For those who are unfamiliar, ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences.  The ACE evaluation system was originally established in 1995 during a two-year study by the Center for Disease Control at Kaiser Permanente’s San Diego Health Appraisal Clinic.  The purpose of the study was to investigate the relationship between many of the leading causes of death in adults and childhood trauma and family dysfunction.  Adults were asked to answer yes or no to a list of potentially impactful factors of their childhood environments (such as substance abuse, domestic violence, incarcerated family members, etc).  The results of their surveys were then juxtaposed with their reported health ailments to attempt to establish correlation.

In the first wave of over 8000 adults surveyed, the CDC concluded that there is a “strong graded relationship between the breadth of exposure to abuse or household dysfunction during childhood and multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults.”  Adults who reported four or more categories of adverse childhood environments were 4 to 12 times more likely to manifest alcoholism, depression, suicide, and drug abuse; 2 to 4 times more likely to smoke, have a large number of sexual partners, and have an STD; 1.4 to 1.6 times more likely to have low physical activity and severe obesity.

While high ACE scores are a strong indicator of potential health risks for adults, that is only the initial data set the study was designed to evaluate.  ACE scores have also started to serve as a window into unhealthy or potentially dangerous habits in children. Children manifesting post-traumatic stress both internalize symptoms and externalize certain behaviors (such as bullying, emotional abuse, and physical violence) that may put them or others around them in compromising situations.  Nadine Burke Harris has a powerful TED Talk about the effect childhood trauma has on neural development, and how it can result in the development of health disorders later in life.

For children who have been recently exposed to traumatic life experiences, and those who are currently in the process of dealing with ongoing traumatic family circumstances, a school environment free of judgement, emotional hardship, and intense stress can be a sanctuary.  In my experience, project-based learning in the Reggio Way gives these students ample opportunities to learn not just from teachers, but also from peers.  Given the chance to navigate genuine peer-to-peer interaction, they can have a shot at developing what may be the first firm friendships of their lives.  Among friends, it is easier for these students to learn lessons of right and wrong, how to control emotions and mitigate socially unacceptable behaviors, and most importantly how to empathize with other students of profoundly different culture and upbringing.

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Children with high ACE scores also need schools for an entirely different reason: they are filled with teachers who are obligated to report signs of potential abuse.  Of the initial 8000 people surveyed during the first wave of ACE data collection, 22% of them reported sexual abuse from a family member.  While the division between home life and school life can be a sensitive line to cross, it is necessary for teachers who suspect such abuse to report to the appropriate agencies.

I know that it is hard for teachers to step in when they witness potential signs of abuse.  I know that it is difficult to submit information that can potentially lead to the end of a family unit and the separation of a child from their parents or guardians.  Many teachers also have the fear that their suspicions are unsubstantiated, and that by going to the appropriate agencies, they would be subjecting a family that has done nothing out of the ordinary to intense stress and scrutiny.  But all of those outcomes are negligible in comparison to the alternative: the permanent physical or emotional damaging of a child.

With their focus on the individual rights of children and commitment to helping students determine the course of their learning journeys, Reggio-inspired schools are the perfect places for children who have experienced trauma to cultivate mental resiliency and minimize the negative experiences that have already exerted considerable influences on their formative lives.  Because of their focus on individual students and development of strong trust bonds to facilitate the development of emergent curriculum, Reggio educators are uniquely suited to interrupting cycles of abuse.  We have the privilege and obligation to be the first line of defense against ACE factors becoming a part of our students lives.  The time we spend to know our students can, in some severe circumstances, mean the difference between premature death and a healthy, rewarding, and love-filled life.

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2 thoughts on “A.C.E. and The Right to Learn

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  1. “We have the privilege and obligation to be the first line of defense against ACE factors becoming a part of our students lives. The time we spend to know our students can, in some severe circumstances, mean the difference between premature death and a healthy, rewarding, and love-filled life.”

    This is exactly what keeps me going as a teacher! I live for the ones that really need me in their lives. They are often the most difficult and the ones no one else wants to deal with, but for me they are the most rewarding students and the reason I do what I do. One person can’t fix the world, but good teachers can make it better one student at a time.
    Thanks for this article! Next week I’m expecting to start work at Head Start, and this is just the right mental prep!

    Like

    1. Glad to hear it. I remember working in public school in Japan and forming the same kind of tight bonds with students many other teachers were quick to label “troubled.” I think there are students all over the world who externalize behaviors based on their difficult home life only to find a sense of overwhelming disapproval from their educators, as well. It breaks my heart, especially because deep down inside many of those students are just looking for someone who will take the time to really listen to their needs.

      Good luck at Head Start, I bet you’ll be a great fit.

      Like

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