As students and parents face the complicated prospect of returning to class this fall, which could mean any number of circumstances in the age of coronavirus, educators are preparing for children who, by virtue of the world in which they live, have been through a lot.
Knowledge of the effect of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on long-term mental health is as old as psychology itself, but a 1998 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) reported that the effect of ACEs can create lasting physiological damage as well, beginning the accounting for the physical manifestations of ACEs and childhood trauma.
In 2020 especially, this puts not only parents but educators throughout the world in a particularly important position: they must both safeguard the emotional well-being of their students and help them ward off conditions like heart disease that can spring from early childhood trauma.
COVID-19 and ACEs
Students returning to class in the fall are overwhelmingly likely to have experienced trauma in their young lives. This was true before the COVID-19 pandemic that took hold in March 2020 and forced most children to spend the balance of their 2019-20 school year in virtual study environments at home. But according to Dr. Kenneth Elliott, director of mental health for Oklahoma City Public Schools, ACE scores are likely to increase among the general student population this fall.
Before the events of 2020, Elliott said, the number of OKCPS students with ACEs was around 70 to 75 percent.
“That’s pre-pandemic,” Elliott said. “So, with that awareness, we’re trying to implement better trauma awareness teaching strategies in the school settings.”
Students who experienced past or current trauma can show signs in a number of ways. Jena Nelson, who teaches 7th and 8th grade composition for Deer Creek Public Schools and was named 2020 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, said she has identified trauma from her students’ writing.
“Kids are journaling constantly in my classes, so we must be in tune to what the kids are writing about, looking at their artwork, looking at how they’re playing with each other,” Nelson said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ACEs include exposure to violence in the home or community, verbal or physical abuse or having a family member attempt or die by suicide. The loss of parents’ jobs, a growing problem during this pandemic, or poverty in general can exacerbate ACEs. But there is a broader swath of indicators that will likely impact students returning to class. Children who experience isolation as a result of social distancing can be traumatized, as well as those who have experienced racial targeting or inequality. Ironically, while some students experience trauma from not going to school, others can suffer trauma from being forced to return to school during a pandemic.
“The school that I’m currently at, we probably have 50 to 60 percent easily of our kids that are coming in with high scores,” said Michelle Lewis, principal of OKCPS Thelma Parks Elementary School. “But then I think the challenge to this year especially is even some of our students that didn’t have high scores may have some anxiety right now. They may have some trauma right now. This is something where it didn’t matter what neighborhood you lived in. This affected everybody.”
Supporting students and teachers
As part of its response to the continuing COVID-19 crisis, OKCPS’ board of education voted on July 21 to delay the beginning of school, pushing the date back from Aug. 10 to Aug. 31. In addition, the district voted to make all classes virtual for the first nine weeks of the school year.
Whether students are learning from home or in the classroom, the need for compassion extends to everyone in a child’s orbit. U.S. Grant High School posted a message on its website asking that students be aware of “another student struggling to make friends, another student being picked on, a student who is shy or not with the ‘in’ crowd, a student who is eating lunch by themselves.” It encourages students to “be leaders” and include these classmates in activities because “you never know what that person is facing inside or outside of school.”
“And so we have students, I would say around that 50 to 60 percentage range, that have ACEs, some of them having three or more ACEs that they exhibited even before the pandemic,” said Greg Frederick, principal at U.S. Grant. “So, having a plan in place for us to be able to deal with that is really important. Even before we had a reopening plan, we had conversations with our counselors about what that’s going to look like whenever they return.”
For Elliott the need for proactivity in the face of what could be a challenging school year was paramount. The message on U.S. Grant’s website is only the beginning of a larger plan to have not just teachers and parents be vigilant but for students to look after one another.
“There is a screening tool that we’re looking at implementing that would tell us what percentage of students are experiencing some sort of dysregulation because of their experiences,” Elliott said. “We don’t have a formal one in place, but having the social emotional curriculum in place for high school, we’re going to start something called Friend A Friend, which is an intervention program, which helps students identify and support other students.”
But it is not only students, of course, who need support in these times. Elliott said the school system is also prepared for a growing number of teachers to face compassion fatigue in the coming school year, a condition in which teachers find themselves no longer able to give of themselves in the way they are accustomed. While burnout is always a concern for teachers, compassion fatigue can overwhelm educators at a time when their services are so desperately needed.
“People experience large amounts of compassion fatigue or higher incidences of divorce, in general, with the general helping professions,” Elliott said. “Same thing with infidelity, family dysfunction, overuse of alcohol or drugs as a way to cope. It’s almost like one’s spirit is harmed, almost like there’s an existential crisis. They say, ‘I thought this is what I wanted to be. This is my calling, but I’m miserable, I’m not effective. I don’t feel good about my interactions with kids.’ And then I think that unresolved period time can lead to burnout. And burnout is really insidious. It does affect both personal and professional life.”
For Nelson, it was important for her to make ACEs and childhood trauma a plank of her platform as 2020 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year. Helping students and fellow teachers through a challenging period of their lives was a deeply felt personal need.
“I grew up in a household that had a lot of major trauma, abuse and neglect,” Nelson said. “I was kind of passed around from family member to family member to raise, and back at home things were not good. And so public school was my safe haven.”
Nelson’s hope is to provide a safe haven for her current students, who are facing difficulties that are unique to them in 2020.
“We are a family,” Nelson said. “And so when we know that something has happened to one of our students, we talk and we figure out a way that we can advocate for that child.”
Editor’s note: George Lang has worked in journalism for 25 years and has written or edited for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma Gazette and other area publications. He currently teaches at ACM@UCO and hosts “Spy 101” on KOSU/The Spy. He and his wife Laura, chief executive officer at Thrive, Inc., and their son Sam live, work and school in Oklahoma City.