The women who join us at Susannah’s House almost always had traumatic childhoods. They grew up in deep poverty, without nourishing food or even enough food to eat each day. Or one of their parents had a substance abuse problem or even abused them physically. It’s very rare that one of our women didn’t have adverse childhood experiences, and when you know the research, that isn’t surprising.
In the 1990s, researchers collected information from about 17,000 people about adverse childhood experiences. They found a direct link between childhood trauma and adults locked in a cycle of drug use, poverty and domestic violence. In children, traumatic events go hand-in-hand with poor academic achievement and behavioral issues. Adverse childhood experiences can even increase the risk of cancer, autoimmune diseases and depression.
The reason why lies in how and when children’s brains develop. Brains aren’t born, they are built over time. The experiences children have in the first years of life actually affect the physical make-up of their brains.
Toxic stress hijacks natural brain development. Without a caring adult, children’s stress response stays activated, even when there is no outside physical harm present. A 2013 study found that this on-going trauma sends the cells shaping children’s brain connections into overdrive, affecting the pathways the brain builds.
This change in brain make-up has lifelong effects. The areas of the brain that comprise learning and reasoning weaken under stress and deteriorate. And the effects of trauma are even worse when they come early and from a trusted caregiver.
But, we can avoid the effects of toxic stress if we ensure that early childhood environments are nurturing, stable and engaging. The women at Susannah’s House want to provide this kind of environment for their children, but they need help. They need help to conquer their own trauma, so they can stop the cycle and provide a better future for their kids.
With a trauma-informed classroom, we can cater to the needs of children who have been living under chronic stress. To the uninformed, children with adverse childhood experiences might seem to just be acting out: they’re angry, disconnected, and show a lot of similarities with ADHD.
With caring adults who understand these behaviors, we can begin to build more positive experiences. When the good experiences outweigh the bad, it makes it easier for children to achieve more positive outcomes in school and over the course of their lives.
With a trauma-informed classroom, we can help children build toward better outcomes and break the family cycle of substance abuse.