How ACEs Impact Students in School


Julie lived in a small trailer home with her mother, her older brother, and her mother’s boyfriend. (Her father was incarcerated for repeated drug charges.)  I was Julie’s special education case manager and teacher for most of her elementary school years. She and her brother often got themselves up and ready for school every day while their mother (who reportedly suffered from a mental illness) slept. Due to Julie’s emotional and behavioral disorder, she qualified for riding special transportation to and from school with a bus aide who would knock on her door when she wasn’t already waiting outside her home in the morning. We had a change of clothes and toiletries available for Julie when she came to school disheveled or when her clothes needed to be washed. I remember how she loved getting her hair brushed and braided while she ate the school-provided breakfast and completed her untouched homework in my classroom before heading to her general education classroom every morning.

As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years) that can have serious long-term implications. ACEs are divided into three broad categories:

  • Abuse (emotional, physical, sexual)
  • Household challenges (divorce, mother treated violently, incarcerated family member, substance abuse and/or mental illness in the household)
  • Neglect (emotional, physical)

According to recent study by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente, 61% of adults surveyed reported having experienced at least one ACE. (You can determine your own ACE score by answering 10 confidential questions in this quiz.) Based on what I knew about Julie when she was my student, I conservatively estimate she experienced four (possibly five) ACEs. 

There is an alarming correlation between ACEs and risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, and premature death. (The higher number of ACEs, the greater the risk of these serious outcomes.) Unresolved adverse experiences can manifest as chronic stress, anxiety, and emotional pain – potentially leading to risky coping behaviors such as substance abuse, smoking cigarettes, engaging in unhealthy relationships, and compulsive eating. According to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ research (California’s first surgeon general), children who experienced severe trauma were 32 times more likely to be diagnosed with learning and behavioral disorders than kids who were not victims of trauma. (Gaines, 2019)

In school, Julie qualified for special education services to help meet her academic, behavioral, social, and emotional needs. She received daily individualized reading and writing support in a small group setting with me, she worked with the school psychologist on developing and practicing anger management and other coping skills, she attended a weekly “lunch bunch” with peers that I facilitated to help her strengthen friendship skills, an educational assistant was available in her general education classroom when Julie required additional support – such as during math class, her classroom teachers often implemented mindfulness techniques such as breathing exercises for the whole class, I consulted with an occupational therapist to explore ways to address Julie’s executive functioning deficits, and Julie had unlimited access to my special education classroom when she needed to take a break throughout the school day.

As Julie’s special education teacher, I focused my efforts on her (along with my other students’) overall success, but there were many factors outside of my control. For example, I worked hard to develop a partnership with Julie’s mom to no avail. I made phone calls to Child Protection Services when I noticed signs of neglect and abuse - some of those calls were further investigated, but many were dismissed. And, after being evicted, she and her family moved to a different home in a neighboring school district when she was in the fifth grade, and I eventually lost track of her.

Although she didn’t always demonstrate it, I think Julie enjoyed, appreciated, and even craved the structure, safety, and stability provided at school. Her attendance was impressive, and she made overall good academic and behavioral progress throughout her elementary years. I can only trust that my fellow educators and I did our best to equip her with the tools and support necessary for continued progress and success throughout her school years and into adulthood.

Perhaps you have students like Julie who are living with one or more adverse childhood experiences. Poverty, suicide, abuse, divorce, and community violence are some of the many traumatic, yet common, life experiences and events students of today’s society face. Learn how you can incorporate effective trauma-informed practices to maximize student learning and success in our new course - Trauma, Stress, and Anxiety in Schools: Finding Hope and Building Resilience. 



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Jill Rockwell
Jill has over 13 years of experience as a licensed teacher in the areas of Special Education, Reading Education, and Health Education. She embraces diversity and has worked with students in grades K-12 in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. Jill completed her Master of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls while teaching full time. She fully understands the soaring demands of today’s teachers. Her courses are designed to maximize the time of all educators by providing engaging, meaningful, and applicable activities which can be used to enhance teaching practices. She focuses on research-based best practices and technology integration throughout her own instructional practices. Together with her husband and two young boys, Jill enjoys traveling, biking and the changing seasons of the great outdoors in Wisconsin. 

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