ACEs and Resilience

Today the movie Resilience was streaming free if one had reserved a ticket to do so in advance. Many of my coworkers had spoken highly of the short documentary. It is about Adverse Childhood Experiences and resilience in the face of adversity.

The documentary was good, but in a bad way. I say good because Resilience did a great job of explaining the background of ACEs and the negative consequences of ACEs. The “flip” side, resilience, was also shown and explained. Resilience, from my interpretation, is about how to cope and provide strategies to make it through the ACEs.

Bad may not be the best word, but it fits how I was feeling after the film ended. The trauma so many of us experience as children, and how it can affect us throughout our lives was sad and depressing. Knowing, as an educator, how little attention is dedicated to looking at the ACEs of our students, in general, made me angry. We concentrate so much on test scores and discipline for out-of-control behavior. What we don’t concentrate on enough is addressing the underlying issues for this type of behavior, for low academic achievement for certain groups of children, and high rates of teen suicide.

On the ACEs questionnaire, I score a seven. If one looks at just my score, I have a higher risk of alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, many many health issues, and a lowered life expectancy of around 20 years. Not a very pretty picture for me, and the millions of others with a score of four or higher (the “baseline” for these higher risks).

The reason I said if you just look at my ACEs score, it can look very bleak. However, if one also looks at my resilience score, the picture becomes much brighter. I also have a high resilience score, factors that helped me cope and make it through my ACEs. Examples are a loving mom, someone who believed in me, and another adult—a teacher—who cared helped me feel worthy (thank you Ms. Weber).

As an educator, I always knew I may have been the only positive influence in my student’s lives, because a teacher was one of mine. Each day I worked to help the children in my classes over the years to feel special, that I cared, and I would do what was within my power to protect them. My goal was to make our classroom a safe and calming environment, to which I believe I largely succeeded. As a principal, I worked to do the same thing for our school, to remain calm in any situation, and to show each student I cared about them, even when I had to hold them accountable. ACEs, which I didn’t know about that term then, was not an excuse for bad or disrespectful behavior. It can explain behavior, but it can’t excuse the behavior.

While watching the film, all of the students I’ve worked with over the past 20 years cycled through my mind, some more prevalent than others due to my experiences with them, but all had, and have, a place in my heart. The source of their behaviors became a little more clearer than when they were in our class or our school. This walk down memory lane mostly gave me solace I had done many a right thing by my students—I wasn’t perfect, but I always gave it my best and never gave up on them. I hope they all knew and know this.

As someone who works with schools, I also began to wonder how to help the influencers and leaders move away from only looking at academic intervention as the only way to increase academic achievement. Maybe it is high time, and more likely past time, to look at mental health as an academic intervention, to shift the paradigm of how federal dollars are used traditionally. My brain will continue to mull this over, to see with whom to partner, brainstorm with, then how to spread the message to those who can actually effect the change.

What are some ideas you might offer to move us further along the ACEs/Resilience path with students, families, educators and society as a whole?

P.S.—Every educator and education policy maker should be mandated to watch this documentary.

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