Our Sphere of Positive Influence: Creating positive experiences for ourselves and the students we teach

October 27, 2022 by Kara Lee Foster

These days, most educators are all-too familiar with the term trauma, and many are aware of the acronym ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). Based on research initially done between 1995 and 1997, two medical researchers—  Dr. Robert Anda in Georgia and Dr. Vincent Felitti in California—identified ten adverse experiences focusing on abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. Results of the study clearly demonstrated that as the number of ACEs increased, so too did the likelihood of developing physical, mental or behavioral health problems as adults. Study results have consistently been replicated in the years since. Around 60% of the American population has experienced one or more ACE, and correlations with associated health problems remain steady.

This ground-breaking study made waves in public health, providing insight into why adults could be experiencing certain health problems. It also shined a light on the potential long-term effects childhood abuse and neglect can have, and increased awareness of the need for more proactive and successful interventions at earlier stages of development.

Knowing about trauma and its potential effects is certainly important for all of us in this field. It can also be incredibly challenging, as educators have limited influence on home environments. Without specific and direct disclosures, our lens into a home life can only reveal so much. Sometimes knowledge of ACEs alone can feel overwhelming to teachers already overburdened and stressed by professional expectations.

This is one reason why investigations into Positive Childhood Experiences (PCE) is so important. Researchers have long recognized that many face adversity and suffer as a result. But there are also those who do more than survive—they thrive. Research comparing adults who reported high numbers of PCE with those who reported low or no PCE found that adults reporting more PCE showed 72 percent lower levels of adult depression and/or poor mental health and were 3.5 times more likely to get the social and emotional support they need as an adult (Bethell et. al. 2019).

Through the work of Dr. Christine Bethell of Johns Hopkins University and colleagues, seven PCE have been identified:

  1. Being able to talk openly with a family member
  2. Belief that family stood by them during difficult times
  3. Feeling safe and protected by an adult in the home
  4. Feeling supported by friends
  5. Having a sense of belonging and connection with a larger group
  6. Enjoyment of participation in community traditions
  7. Relationship with at least one non-parent adult who takes a genuine interest

As educators and faculty review this list, we can see there are several PCE the school community can directly affect.  Providing classroom environments that promote physical and emotional safety, encouraging participation, and ensuring all of our students feel seen and heard—these are the interactions, and yes, interventions, available to all of us in school buildings. While our sphere of influence may feel limited to our four walls, the results ripple into the community at large.

So my charge for all of us in the education profession is this: as we move through the new school year, let us focus not just on standards or on how students are suffering. Let us also reimagine the power we collectively have to change the trajectory of our students’ futures by providing support, belonging, and positive relationships in this current moment.

As Rita Pierson so eloquently stated: “We’re educators. We’re born to make a difference.”

Additional Reading:

Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2749336

 Balancing ACEs with Hope: https://cssp.org/resource/balancing-aces-with-hope-final/

ACEs and counter-ACEs: How positive and negative childhood experiences influence adult health  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31362100/

Rita Pierson Ted Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/rita_pierson_every_kid_needs_a_champion?language=en


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