At the third attempt, I managed to secure a place and attend the ‘Leadership for Resilience – Putting ACE’s awareness into action’ in Kelty this weekend. This event like many similar events across Scotland, more information here, was hosted by Suzanne Zeedyk (@suzannezeedyk) and David Cameron (@realdcameron). The morning started with a hushed hall full of trepidation as Suzanne invited us to consider the effect of over stimulation of ‘fight or flight’ responses and the resultant constant yo-yoing of cortisol levels in our blood streams.
The event, in two parts, this first of which was to watch ‘Resilience – the biology of stress and the science of hope’, this was followed with a discussion about the impact of the film, personal storytelling and contributions.
The film made by James Redford carries the tag line ‘the child may not remember, but the body remembers’ and outlines that “toxic stress can trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death” as it demonstrates how altered responses to stress can lead to physical changes in the way the brain develops.
These claims are backed up by a report published in 2016 entitled “‘Polishing the Diamonds' - Addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences in Scotland”, here, which discusses how adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) can effect children’s life-long well-being. The report outlines the categories of ACE’s as: emotional, physical or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; domestic abuse; substance misuse; mental ill health; criminality; separation or living in care.
The report states that “Individuals who have experienced four or more ACE’s are;
· Almost 4 times more likely to smoke
· Almost 4 times more likely to drink heavily
· Almost 9 times more likely to experience incarceration
· Almost 3 times more likely to be morbidly obese.”
If these statistics are not startling enough, those who have experienced more than 4 ACE’s are also at greater risk of poor educational and employment outcomes, low mental well-being and life satisfaction and recent violent involvement or inpatient hospital care, chronic health conditions and having caused/been unintentionally pregnant before the age of eighteen.
So how can we tackle ACE’s? In the report (2016) “Bellis outlines how ACEs should be a consideration across the life course with a focus on prevention, resilience and enquiry” and considering family context, parental and family risk and household adversities.
So what does this mean for teachers, teachers learning and support for teachers across Scotland?
GIRFEC, as a policy, should pervade all education in Scotland but perhaps we have lost focus as other ’priorities’ have come to the fore and have taken our attention away from GIRFEC or as David Cameron puts it “when did GIRFEC stop being a policy and become a slogan”. In Scotland we may need to ask tough questions about policy priorities. Does current policy express and privilege the holistic child and the wrap around a child needs or does it privilege attainment? This dichotomy of policy priority may miss the child who is ‘human and wants to succeed’. The drive for attainment can sometimes not see the obvious that “care is a strategy for attainment” and attainment is supported by a caring learning environment where children feel safe; safe to be, safe to fail and safe to continue to learn. This is where PEF funding can be invaluable for schools, it can be spent on resources and interventions that support better holistic HWB outcomes for all children and avoid targeting, labelling and limiting children e.g. improve the attainment of SIMD 2 children.
Teacher professionalism and the value of social justice in the Professionals Standards means that teachers should take into consideration, and action the ways adversity in childhood affects children receptiveness and ability to learn on a daily basis. Within the current review of the Professional Standards, do we need to go as far as the Professionals Standards in China where ‘love’ and ‘care’ are mentioned explicitly?
As the basis of teaching is in relationships, the breakdown of relationships cause ACE’s, relationships can also be the solution for ACE’s. So, how do we as an education system support teachers at all stages of their careers to build positive relationships with children? For ITE, this would mean ensuring the selection procedures do not solely rely on academic qualifications but also take into consideration personal attributes and disposition. ITE institutions should support teachers to develop their identity and skills in supporting children and seeing this film may provide an excellent stimulus for discussion around these areas.
Teachers can make small changes to their practice, for example, a quick ‘temperature check’ and ‘hello’ as children arrive to class and using the child’s name “can change a child’s biology”.
Teachers and schools can also change their perspective by changing the language they use in describing children’s behaviours, one Fife primary school changed their language from “challenging behaviour” to “distressed behaviour”. This changed their outlook on managing and supporting their pupils by changing the conversation from behaviours to the causes of the behaviours. This change in language could go some way changing views on how we support vulnerable children before they become damaged children.
Parents are the crucial third partner in a child’s education. Supporting children but neglecting the family rarely leads to long term change. Schools can make a difference but not all the difference, family involvement and family learning are a key element in reducing ACE’s.
Finally we were asked to “In ONE word, how has today left you feeling?” My word was curious. These preventions to reduce ACE’s all seems so evident and fundamental to teaching, I am curious to know why this is not taking place, not just in Scotland but all over the world. Is it not obvious that all of our experiences shape us and influence our choices and behaviours, so why are we just beginning to talk about this, in these terms, now? Why only now are we being explicit? Our question to children needs to change from “what’s wrong with you?” to “what’s happened to you?” to support all children to be the best they can be.
P.S. Suzanne briefly flashed a book by Carol Craig called “Hiding in Plain Sight” which asks the question “If Scotland had an ACE’s score, what would it be?” so guess what has just been added to my collection?