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Supporting students through adverse childhood experiences

Supporting pupils’ behaviour and wellbeing is receiving more attention in education settings, in part, due to Ofsted’s new inspection framework. Amidst this, is a new approach to helping students that reframes blame in a way that looks beyond the school gates and considers why a student may be behaving a certain way. Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, is a prime example of this, and here Dawn Jotham, pastoral care specialist at EduCare, provides foundational knowledge and ways in which teachers and staff can best support students.


Understanding ACEs

Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, is used to describe highly stressful, and potentially traumatic events that may occur during childhood or adolescence. This can be a single event or prolonged and repeated threats and breaches of a young person’s safety, security, trust or bodily integrity. Additionally, ACEs can be experienced by a young person both directly and indirectly.

Direct experiences include physical, sexual and verbal abuse as well as emotional and physical neglect, while indirect experiences can occur in environments where there is domestic abuse, substance misuse, mental illness, parental separation and/or parental imprisonment. That said, as research continues, other contributing factors have also been identified such as bereavement, bullying, poverty and racism.

Adverse childhood experiences cover a broad spectrum of events however, an awareness of all triggers empowers staff to be mindful of vulnerable students and prompt the necessary safeguarding protocol. It may seem like an overwhelming list, but not educating teachers and staff of the risk factors can have significant detrimental effects. Many people who experience ACEs go on to live stable lives but providing support increases the likelihood of this outcome with those less fortunate experiencing negative flow-on effects to their education, aspirations and health.


Taking action EduCare's Dawn Jotham on adverse childhood experiences

The most effective response to ACEs is multipronged – students need the opportunity to learn the skills that will help them overcome traumas, while teachers and staff should be taught how to best support these students.


For example, key factors involved in the development and growth of a child include:

• Developing positive relationships with adults

• Being encouraged to self-regulate emotions

• Developing a positive sense of self and self-esteem.


Another key trait is resilience – the ability of a young person to develop and succeed in the face of stress and adversity. It is, in essence, being able to maintain positive wellbeing and when successfully developed it is often the lynchpin of healthy self-esteem, trust, and the ability to act in one’s best interest. Arguably, resilience is often best developed by witnessing it in others so it is important to provide young people with good examples of using support networks – be that family, friends, or teachers; developing strong communication skills; and an understanding that they are valued and respected by their community.

Additionally, teachers and staff can provide effective support by listening to the student concerned. Listening – it sounds easy, but many people get it wrong and it is crucial in supporting providing support. With this in mind, teachers and staff are encouraged to:

• Create a safe space for sharing

• Listen patiently

• Be empathic and calm, whilst providing an environment free from judgement.


To this end, it’s also important that staff adopt a more holistic approach to supporting students – that is a consideration of the wider issues at play. For example, consider why a student may be behaving a certain way. This approach is not only designed to reveal the causal factors but also ensures the focus remains on effectively supporting the wellbeing of students by reframing blame to position the child as someone who has endured a trauma.

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