Early childhood adversity is a topic that is widely covered in the literature and in initial practitioner education.However, until recently the topic of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has been less well covered.The World Health Organisation’s recognition of ACEs as a major public health challenge has raised awareness and as a result, societal change is happening with more ECEC practitioners becoming trauma sensitive, while the demand for training has also increased. Fundamentally, while ACEs are deemed a major public health challenge, they also have the potential to be largely resolved by appropriate prevention and intervention.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is a term coined by researchers, Vincent Felitti, Robert Anda, and their colleagues, in their study conducted from 1995 to 1997. ACEs refer to traumatic experiences in a person’s life occurring before the age of 18. These include:
- experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect;
- witnessing violence in the home or community;
- having a family member attempt or die by suicide.
In addition, aspects of the child’s environment that can challenge their sense of safety are also identified and include children’s experiences of
- substance misuse;
- mental health problems;
- instability due to parental separation or incarceration of a parent, sibling or other member of the household
Unfortunately, ACEs are common and in the general population many of us will have experienced at least one ACE. Notably, ACEs do not discriminate and occur across all cultural, racial and economic groups. Despite this prevalence, 60% of teachers have no relevant training on the needs of children who have experienced trauma (Speck, 2019). For those working in the ECEC profession, the number may be significantly higher.
ACES, Trauma, the Brain, and Development
For children impacted by trauma, their bodies and brains are primed for physiological state of fear and survival (Jedd et al., 2015). As a result, they tend to perceive certain situations as threatening and respond accordingly in a state of fight, flight or freeze. Consequently, children with trauma history can see a situation, such as a transition, as a threat to their safety. Toxic stress profoundly alters the development of a child’s brain; it affects the immune system, with research showing a correlation between early adversity and poorer outcomes later in life.
Our Default is Trauma-Sensitive
Offering child centered quality care and education is what we do best. As ECEC teachers, we create early learning environments that are predictable, we provide consistent care, and promote responsive relationships and feelings of physical and emotional safety – all the requisites for trauma-sensitive learning environments. High quality ECEC experiences are rooted in empathy, compassion, and validation of children’s lived experiences, as is a trauma-sensitive approach. However, a trauma-sensitive approach also means understanding three things.
- It means understanding the prevalence and impact of trauma and ACEs.
- It means understanding the role trauma plays in people lives.
- And most importantly, it means understanding that any healing from trauma can only come from responsive relationships.
For those interested in trauma-sensitive approaches think about:
- Committing to learning about trauma and its impact. Any outbursts/meltdowns are understood as reflexive attempts made by the child to feel safe in what they perceive as a dangerous world.
- Listen to the child without interrupting and listen without judgement.
- A trauma-informed approach asks ‘What happened to you?’ not ‘What is wrong with you?’ (Bloom & Farragher, 2013, p. 7).
- Be sincerely emphatic. Use short statements such as like “you have every right to feel angry/sad/cross.”
- Transitions are huge stressors for children with trauma history. Transitions signal uncertainty/change, potentially unsafe situations, and potentially the loss of reliable relationships. Create predictable transitions. Build routine around transitions. The following transitions may be particularly difficult for children who have trauma history.
- Beginning or end of the day;
- Horizontal transitions e.g. moving from one activity to another;
- End of year vertical transitions e.g. moving on from toddler group to preschool, moving from preschool to junior infants etc.
Scaffold these transitions by engaging in regulating activities (such as reading, singing, freeze dance, breathing buddies or blowing imaginary candles out on our fingertips) can all help to soothe the amygdala-the alarm centre of the brain.
- Recognise publicly and redirect behaviour privately, and always in a calm voice/tone. ‘Catch’ children doing good: “I really like the way ….”
- Always greet the children with a smile. Yours might be the only smile they see that day. Be kinder than you have to. Joy is given and received through spreading unexpected kindness.
- Days, dates, and celebratory holidays that signal fun for many children can be difficult for children who have experienced trauma. For example, for some, weekends may mean higher alcohol consumption in the home and more domestic violence.
- Relationship-based approaches are central to healing. Connections with caring adults who are positive role models are essential and can improve future outcomes. Be the buffer!
- We want the child to internalise many positive beliefs about themselves. We need to reinforce that they are loved, valued, and respected and especially when they are feeling very strong emotions.
Dr Judith Butler is a researcher and lecturer in Early Childhood Education and Care at Cork Institute of Technology. Judith supervises postgraduate research and is currently involved in trauma research. Judith’s research interests include; the social domain of children’s development and in particular, social competence, relationships and the impact of positive and adverse childhood experiences on children and their families. Judith has vast experience working with and on behalf of children. She is an Editor of An Leanbh Óg: The Irish Journal of Early Childhood Studies. Judith is the President of OMEP Ireland and is a member of the scientific committee of World OMEP. Judith can be contacted at Judith.firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @Dr__Jude