TOPEKA — Forty-five percent of Kansas children younger than the age of 18 have an adverse childhood experience, according to a recent analysis by the Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative.
The national figure sits at 46 percent.
“ACEs include a range of experiences that can lead to trauma and toxic stress and impact children’s brain development and physical, social, mental, emotional, and behavioral health and well-being,” the report said.
Educators with USD 501 have been working to address the prevalence of students’ ACE scores at Pine Ridge Prep and Sheldon Child Development Center. In last year’s applications, more than half of the children came from single-parent households and 30 percent had been exposed to domestic violence, said Shanna McKenzie, Sheldon’s lead principal of early childhood education.
They also have seen an increase in the number of children with an incarcerated parent — approximately 16 percent. McKenzie said when students visit a parent in jail, teachers expect they will bring the experience back to school. That might come in the form of negative behavior. McKenzie said teachers have undergone training to become more trauma informed and address issues more responsively.
In 2012, staff began realizing the extent of trauma — such as exposure to gun violence — children at Pine Ridge were experiencing. By age 4, 60 percent of the students had four or more ACEs.
The centers added family service workers and play therapy. A food bank and clothing pantry were established on site at Sheldon, and staff members are able to connect families to other community resources.
Additionally, all of the district’s principals have had ACE training. One session included listening to a domestic violence 911 call, McKenzie said, so they could better understand the impact of trauma.
The two centers also began educating parents about the ACE questionnaire. Parents fill out their ACE score and their child’s. Staff discuss the implications, including the cycle of trauma. ACEs are common and should be talked about, McKenzie said. The district plans on rolling out the optional test to all USD 501 parents at some point.
Education is the first step, McKenzie said, as parents might not even realize they are perpetuating their negative experiences onto their children.
“It’s what you do with it after that makes a difference,” she said.
One step is to develop a resiliency plan.
“It’s empowering,” McKenzie said.
The plan asks about a person’s strengths, what they need to work on and how they can stay on track, among other questions.
One woman answered by saying she had a kind heart and was willing to help others, but she needed to work on feelings of anxiety and feeling safe, McKenzie said.
The resiliency plan identifies strengths and support systems and in doing so, builds confidence, McKenzie said.
Resilience is also emphasized in the ACE report. Resilience can be developed by teaching children how to stay calm and in control when faced with challenges. Children ages 6 to 17 with two or more ACEs are more than three times more likely to be engaged in school if they learn skills related to resilience. The analysis found children can learn to cope and heal with support from family, health-care providers and the broader community.