The General Teaching Council for Scotland

20 Feb 2018

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Charlaine SimpsonCharlaine Simpson, Senior Education Officer

At the third attempt, I managed to secure a place and attend the ‘Leadership for Resilience – Putting ACEs awareness into action’ in Kelty this weekend. This event was hosted by 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 or ‘fight or flight’ responses, and the resultant constant yo-yoing of cortisol levels in our blood streams.

The event is separated into two parts.The 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.

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

The film, which was made by James Redford, carries the tagline: The child may not remember, but the body remembers. The film 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, which discusses how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can effect children’s lifelong wellbeing. The report outlines the categories of ACEs 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 ACEs 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.

More information can be found at:

If these statistics are not startling enough, those who have experienced more than four ACEs are also at greater risk of poor educational and employment outcomes; low mental wellbeing; lower levels of life satisfaction; recent violent involvement or inpatient hospital care; chronic health conditions and  unintentional pregnancy before the age of eighteen.

So how can we tackle ACEs?

In the report (2016) “Bellis outlines how ACEs should be a consideration across the life course with a focus on prevention, resilience and enquiry”, 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. As David Cameron puts it:  'when did GIRFEC stop being a policy and become a slogan?' In when did GIRFEC stop being a policy and become a slogan?Scotland we may need to ask tough questions about policy priorities. Does current policy express and privilege the holistic child and the wraparound 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 Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) funding can be invaluable for schools - it can be spent on resources and interventions that support better holistic health and wellbeing 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's 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?

The breakdown of relationships can cause ACEs but relationships can also be the solution for ACEs.  So, how do we as an education system support teachers at all stages of their careers to build positive relationships with children? For Initial Teacher Education (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’, ‘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 to changing views on how we support vulnerable 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 ACEs.

Finally, we were asked: 'In ONE word, how has today left you feeling?'

My word was, 'curious'.

As these preventions to reduce ACEs all seem 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 ACEs score, what would it be?'

So guess what has just been added to my collection?

For more information about the event, see: