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While a large amount of research has focused on how poverty affects students’ academic achievement, information about the effects of toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences on learning are just coming to the forefront.
Some kids “come into a family that has the resources and the support to provide what they need, but, unfortunately, we know many kids don’t,” and spend much of their lives trying to catch up and overcome challenges, said Marcia Stanton, coordinator of the Adverse Childhood Experience Initiative for Phoenix Children’s Hospitals.
Research shows experiencing six or more adverse childhood experiences increases risk factors for chronic diseases, which can reduce a person’s life by up to 20 years, Stanton said.
In Arizona, nearly 31 percent of children from birth to 17 years old have experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences, which is significantly higher than the national average of 22 percent, according to the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health.
Not all people who experience trauma develop adverse health situations. For some, the safe, stable and nurturing relationships they have with others help regulate this stress, Stanton said.
At a recent meeting, the Creating Trauma Sensitive AZ Schools work group played The Brain Architecture Game developed by the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, which illustrated that in a hands-on way.
Participants drew cards describing positive, neutral or negative experiences in a child’s life from birth to five years old. Then they built a structure representing a child’s brain with pipe cleaners and straws. Later they added weights to represent stressors or more supports for positive experiences up to age eight.
A few brain structures bore the weights and remained stable.
“Our brain had a good makeup to start with. For the first three years we were doing great,” said a woman in one group. “Then we had some horrible issues. Daycare kept coming up as questionable. In year four, his or her parents got divorced, and it seemed like from there we just kept drawing bad stuff from the neighborhood – drug and alcohol exposure by the caregivers. For years five and six it was kind of rough.”
“But by year seven and eight our little guy or girl held it together and their brain didn’t tumble,” she said. “The foundation was great even though we have five weights on it, it was fine. Our little brain was able to sustain the life stressors.”
But most brain structures collapsed because they did not have a strong foundation and could not bear the weights of the stressors.
“Our brain had a very rough life. Typically, throughout each year we had at least two different toxic experiences and not a lot of social support,” said another woman. “We didn’t make it past year seven.”