The General Teaching Council for Scotland

3 Sep 2018

Childhood poverty and Adverse Childhood Experiences

Charlaine SimpsonCharlaine Simpson, Senior Education Officer


Having recently read ‘Poverty Safari’ and seen Darren McGarvey’s Edinburgh Fringe show where he related his experiences to the film ‘Resilience – the biology of stress and the science of hope’, which I saw earlier this year, this post offers some reflective questions to help teachers to start thinking about and addressing the impact of childhood poverty and adverse childhood experiences (ACE) in their own context.

Living in poverty is often not a choice but created and perpetuated by a complex set of circumstances which leave some feeling bleached out of society and done to, rather than done with. I really like this description of poverty from McGarvey’s book, Poverty Safari:

 “Poverty is more like a gravitational field comprising social, economic, emotional, physiological, political and cultural forces. Each person’s escape velocity is different, relative to their specific circumstances.” (p139)

Children growing up in poverty often feel a deep sense of shame and live in constant fear. This shame can manifest in any number of ways. Some children will become aggressive or confrontational, appear lazy, or appear to not care about anything. The fear response often stems from feelings of inadequacy or vulnerability, where their core belief is that ‘they aren’t smart or good enough’.

  • Who in your class/context displays these behaviours?
  • What support is being offered to them, both in your class and beyond?
  • What can you do to ensure they feel included?

Living with extreme stress affects all aspects of a person’s life: mentally, emotionally and physiologically. Being hypervigilant changes how you think, feel and behave. Research into Adverse Childhood Experiences makes links between chronic stress and social issues such as chronic illness in adults, addictive behaviours and violence. Chronic stress can result in communications being expressed through negative behaviours, or as McGarvey puts it “in the midst of so many potential threats, it’s no easy to express yourself “(p34). McGarvey describes the chronic stress that people in disadvantaged communities are living with day in, day out as “the soup everyone is swimming in all the time” (p80); an apt description of just keeping your head above the water to survive.

  • Do you have enough information about each child in your class to help you to be effective in supporting their learning?
  • In what ways can you use the resources you have in your context to support children who are conveying a stress response?

In schools, the effect of poverty and ACEs can be seen through the lens of poor attendance, under-achievement and attainment, and challenging behaviours. Schools and education systems must strive to counterbalance the effects of poverty by making the curriculum and learning experiences more relevant to the lives of children in poverty.  Taking cognisance of where children are in their lives, how they are presenting and their readiness to learn would be the starting point for this.  Some schools and learning communities are excellent in this area and offer fabulous support for all learners.

  • In what ways is your school/learning community addressing childhood poverty and the impact of ACEs?
  • How are you addressing childhood poverty and ACEs in your classroom?

Curriculum content and learning experiences and opportunities also need to be considered in light of children in poverty. Being presented with curricular content that children cannot relate to can be challenging, as they have no schema or reference point to build this onto and this can lead to feelings of disenfranchisement. McGarvey talks about this disenfranchisement as “I couldn’t read a book because the curriculum was full of pretentious, upper class nonsense that said nothing about my community or experience.”(p17).

So how is the curriculum structured to support all children to achieve and in your class how do you ensure the learning experiences are relevant and support the building of knowledge, skills and dispositions?

Building a relationship with each learner is crucial. Everyone is looking for a human connection which nurtures and supports them. McGarvey talks about people in his life that he felt he could trust, was energised by, felt supported and heard by, and most importantly who understood him. They made him feel valued and were a positive force.

  • Thinking about the children you work with, who needs you to be that nurturing positive force?
  • How are you going to address this?
  • What support do you need to do this?

The impact of childhood poverty and ACEs is very complex and will only be addressed through multi-agency working. Improving teachers understanding of childhood poverty and ACEs can be a step towards being part of the multi-agency working that is needed to improve the life chances of the young people of Scotland.


McGarvey, D (2017) Poverty safari. Luath press ltd. Edinburgh