Too often, children struggle to meet academic standards because traumatic events impair their ability to learn and excel in school. As an educator, you can help these children succeed by understanding how adverse childhood experiences shape behavioral and cognitive development, and by implementing a life skills curriculum that teaches students and teachers effective coping strategies.

What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

Experts define adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) as stressful and potentially traumatic events that occur between birth and 18 years old. Some examples include abuse or neglect, financial instability, the death of a loved one, and parental separation or divorce.

Sadly, about one in three children in the United States suffer at least one form of trauma, according to the 2018 National Survey of Children’s Health. In 2019, 34% of children in the US were at risk of having to leave their home due to eviction or foreclosure, according to the Kids Count Data Center. That same year, 12 million children in the US lived below the federal poverty line, and over 650,000 children suffered from maltreatment.

ACEs Impair Brain Development

childhood trauma brain damage

When children experience trauma or live in a stressful environment, their brain releases the chemicals adrenaline and cortisol to prepare them for a fight or flight response. Frequent or sustained releasing of these chemicals damages the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, according to a 2012 study by Victor G. Carrion and Shane S. Wong. This damage affects children’s ability to pay attention, process memories, and control their emotions. Thus, traumatized children have a harder time learning and self-regulating, which leads to poor academic performance and behavior problems. 

Trauma can cause brain damage to children as young as 18 months old, according to a study by researcher Craig Pacheco in 2016. At that age, they start to form autobiographical memories, which means they can remember and be affected by traumatic events.

Children’s brains also develop the most between birth and five years old, so any trauma they encounter in those tender years can significantly damage their learning abilities, according to researchers Martha Herndon and Cathy Waggoner.

ACEs Diminish Student Motivation

Children experiencing adversity can lose motivation to do well in school because they are too focused on survival. According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, people must have their physiological, safety, and relationship needs first before they’ll strive for self-confidence and fulfillment. When children don’t have enough to eat, are mistreated, or feel unloved by their parents, academic achievements become a low priority.

ACEs Decrease School Attendance

Researchers have also found a strong connection between ACEs and chronic absenteeism. According to Hilary Stempel’s research in 2017, about 45% of students who miss 15 or more days of school per year have a history of trauma.

There are various reasons why children with ACEs have poor attendance. A Brookings Institute report stated that younger students tend to miss school because of family factors such as substance abuse or parents’ conflicting work schedules, while older students skip school because of bullying or disengagement.

When children frequently miss school, they score lower on tests and often have to repeat a grade. Kindergarteners who frequently miss school have lower reading and math skills by the end of first grade, according to a 2007 study by Mariajosé Romero and Young-Sun Lee. The more a child’s academic development declines, the less likely they are to graduate from high school.

ACEs Impact on Behavior

adverse childhood experiences and behavioral problemsWhat may seem like deliberate rebellious or inappropriate behavior can actually be children’s way of responding to trauma. One study led by Manuel E. Jimenez discovered that traumatized kindergarteners often show aggression in school. The more adverse experiences a child has, the more aggressive they become, according to a 2016 study led by Tenah K. A. Hunt.

Children with ACEs also tend to have lower self-awareness, relationship skills, and respect for others, according to a 2020 study led by Dee C. Ray.

Caroline Miller’s Child Mind Institute article gives several reasons for why abused children act up in school:

  • Trust Issues – Abused children aren’t used to having an adult recognize and meet their needs. Therefore, they have trouble forming trusting relationships with their teachers.
  • Poor Self-Regulation – Children learn how to calm down when their parents soothe them, but if they’re neglected, they don’t learn how to manage their feelings appropriately.
  • Low-Self Esteem – Abused children mistakenly think bad things happen to them because they are bad, so they don’t think they deserve to do well in school. 
  • Hostility Bias – Often, abused children think everyone is out to get them, so they act defensive when corrected or disciplined. 
  • Hyper-vigilance – Teachers can accidentally trigger an abused child’s fight or flight response, which makes the child hyperactive and easily distracted.

Sometimes children’s misbehavior doesn’t just come from their own trauma but from their parents’ experiences. Researcher Adam Schickedanz and his team discovered that children whose parents have four or more ACEs are more likely to have behavioral health problems.

In 2019, CDC scientists surveyed 144,000 adults in 25 states and found that 61% had suffered at least one ACE and almost 16% experienced four or more. With so many children raised by parents who’ve suffered trauma, your teachers often work with children whose parents may never have taught them how to cope with bad experiences.

How Educators Can Buffer the Effects of ACEs

Student Well-Being or Social-Emotional LearningElementary teachers can identify signs of ACEs early before they ruin children’s academic progress, according to a 2017 Early Childhood Education article.

Adults within the early childhood education community can assist in increasing physical health and mental well-being for children who have encountered ACEs,” the researchers said. “Safe and healthy environments that allow the child to play, explore, and maximize his/her capacities are examples of how individual protective factors can be enhanced. Early childhood educators can support the child’s protective system by building the child’s personal attributes associated with resiliency, such as self-efficacy and self-regulation.” 

Teachers and administrators can buffer the effects of ACEs on education by promoting caring relationships and supporting the physical and mental health needs of their students, according to a 2019 American Educator by David Murphey and Vanessa Sacks. For teachers to do this, they need access to a life skills curriculum that teaches children how to develop a growth mindset, resilience, and self-regulation.

When teachers have a solid, research-based life skills curriculum, it not only helps them help their students but also gives teachers the tools to handle the emotionally demanding responsibilities of working with traumatized children.

Combat ACEs with Studies Weekly Well-Being

Our SEL program teaches PK-6 students effective coping strategies to help them overcome trauma and excel in school and in life. Here are just some of the life skills they’ll learn:

  • Identifying and Demonstrating Emotions – Children become aware of and understand their reactions to ACEs.
  • Grief and Dealing with Loss – Children learn healthy ways to grieve the death of a loved one.
  • Finding Resilience – Students discover how to bounce back from a crisis or setbacks.
  • Responding to Change – Children who’ve moved to a different city or had parents get divorced learn how to respond to these changes in a healthy way. 
  • Overcoming Fear – Abused children find their inner strength and conquer their fears.
  • Resolving Conflict – This skill helps eliminate bullying and other behavior problems at your school.
  • Stress Management – Children figure out how to manage the stress that naturally comes from learning new things at school. 
  • Conquering Anxiety – Whether family life or mental illness causes students to have anxiety, they can overcome it. 
  • Developing Coping Strategies – Learning how to manage their emotions helps students do well in school, no matter what they have experienced.
  • Attitude and Perspective – Children develop a positive outlook and come to realize their experiences don’t define or limit them.

Each unit comes with guiding questions, images, and graphic organizers so teachers can instill these concepts in their students. Teachers also have their own edition with detailed lesson plans to save time and improve instruction.


While educators may not be able to prevent ACEs from happening, they can keep them from impairing children’s academic performance through social-emotional learning. As teachers use our life skills curriculum — Studies Weekly Well-Being — to teach and model coping strategies, students gain the capacity to thrive in school and meet national and state standards.

See excerpts from our SEL program on our website.

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