It’s been more than 15 years since the publication of the first seminal study documenting how adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, impact adult health. Most of us have faced at least one childhood trauma, and these experiences can cause or exacerbate chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and mental illness. And the more ACEs someone has experienced, the greater the risks.
ACEs include mental, emotional, physical and sexual abuse; losing a parent to divorce, abandonment, or death; witnessing a parent endure abuse; having a family member in prison; neglect; and living with an alcoholic, drug addict or someone who is depressed or suffers from other mental illness. Further ACEs research found that these types of toxic stress could affect brain development and fundamentally change our genes, which are passed down to future generations.
For Jane Stevens, it took two decades of work as a journalist to fully understand the connection between early life experiences and many of society’s most intractable problems like violence and drug addiction. She now directs ACEs Too High, which provides the latest news on ACEs, as well as ACEs Connection, an online community whose members are implementing trauma-informed and resilience-building practices in their work, communities and personal lives.
Stevens is currently in the process of building a national grassroots movement to integrate ACEs research into different societal systems including education, faith communities, public health and health care, and social work. The goal is to change the way these systems deal with defiant behavior.
“If you think about how we’ve wanted people to change their criminal behavior, their health behavior, their behavior in a family, it’s been blame, shame and punishment,” said Stevens. “What this new unified science of human development is showing us – what actually works – is understanding and nurturing to get people to a safe space so that they can use their thinking brain and not their fight, flight or fright brain, to begin healing themselves.”
According to Stevens, there are many early adopters who’ve seen remarkable results. For example, a high school principal in Walla Walla, Washington, trained his staff to move from the traditional “hammer” approach to a more inquisitive one to explore the issues kids dealt with. Instead of asking “What’s wrong with this problem kid?” they asked, “What happened to this kid?“ When there was a student who threw a chair in a classroom or cursed at a teacher, instead of using punishment, the teacher would ask the student what was going on.
“Nine times out of 10,” said Stevens, “the kids would just melt and start crying and say, ‘My dad’s an alcoholic and he beat up my mom last night. The police came and took my dad to jail, my mom went to the hospital, and I had to take care of my brother and sister.’”
Within three years, the suspension rate dropped 90%. Administrators stopped expelling students. Test scores, grades, graduation rates, and the number of students applying to college all went up.
Stevens said this type of change is a complicated process. She points to a few key factors to ensure success:
- Time: Change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, sometimes years, for people to transition from the traditional punishment model to one that may seem counterintuitive. “When people first learn about this, they have to change their mental model for what happened to them, their friends, or parents,” said Stevens. “And that takes a little bit of time to understand and to put in a completely different context.”
- Repeated exposure: When Stevens gives ACEs presentations, she sees that people need to stop and think about what she’s saying. “They don’t take in a lot of what I tell them so they need to hear it again,” she said. But the more they learn and understand, the more they’re able to connect the ACEs approach to their own personal experience.
- It takes a village: One person can’t achieve systemic change. It requires buy-in from all leaders in an institution. In the case of the high school in Walla Walla, the principal got support from his faculty. “What we’ve learned is that this is something that moves faster when it’s not owned by anyone, when it’s a real collaborative effort,” she said.
- Commitment: “You have to have courageous leaders say, ‘You know, we don’t have a road map but we have this knowledge,’” she said “’Let’s figure this out and try this. And if that doesn’t work, let’s try something else.’” From trial and error comes best practices that can then be shared with others to create a new model and a new normal.
Stevens has seen this model work on a smaller scale – in schools, faith-based communities, and some small towns. And she’s encouraged by the traction it’s starting to gain. But despite increased visibility in the media, she feels the ACEs movement is still in its infancy.
“What we’re trying to do now is plant seeds in as many communities as possible, by providing information and doing storytelling, so that if a story resonates with someone who runs a domestic violence shelter in a small community in Idaho, for example, that they say ‘We want our community to be trauma-informed,’ and they will meet with other people to talk about this,” said Stevens. “And pretty soon, you’ve got a community movement going on.”
The adoption rate in the US hasn’t reached 1 percent yet, she said. But what’s exciting is that 29 states have conducted ACEs surveys and every state has something in process, whether in small towns or major metropolitan areas. Stevens is confident in the movement’s ability to create a new normal in the foreseeable future. “I bet that in two years, there will be a tipping point.”