Written by Andrew Anastasia, Assistant Professor, English
Every night, it seemed, I came home with a new and troubling story from a student experiencing hardships. More and more, I noticed, students used my office hours not to discuss comma splices, but to share personal troubles–significant ones, like wrestling with abuse and trauma. I can recall two stories in particular: one from a student who came in to discuss her writing and ended up discussing how she no longer had access to her meds when she was removed from her parents’ health insurance and another from a student who recalled the time she was pushed in front of a bus because she is Muslim. Increasingly, I find that classroom conversations suddenly shift to discussing poor course performance and students’ struggles to manage the pressures of work, family life, caretaking, chronic illnesses, or mental health issues.
When I shared these experiences with colleagues, I found I was not alone. Several others had also observed an uptick in student stress, anxiety, and extreme barriers to learning. What began as casual conversations about increasing concerns for students’ mental health and classroom behavior has blossomed into a new Community of Practice focused on examining ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) in higher education. The new group is composed of a diverse mix of instructors, support staff, and administrators and will explore ways one might use ACEs science to understand the affective experiences of students, faculty, and staff at Harper College.
The term ACEs stands for “Adverse Childhood Experiences” and indexes a range of negative childhood experiences that impact a child’s developing brain so intensely that the effects manifest years later. We now understand that exposure to adverse experiences, trauma, and “toxic stress” as a child negatively impacts our adult lives and that most adults (64%) report at least one “ACE.” The landmark CDC/Kaiser ACE study found that ACEs occurred in two-thirds of the study’s participants; one in five participants reported an ACE score of three or higher.  The test for ACEs was developed by Vincent Felitti (Kaiser) and Robert Anda (CDC) and is a simple 10 question survey. Some questions are personal (they ask questions about physical, emotional, sexual abuse and neglect) and others are related to the family system (presence of alcoholism, drug use, incarceration). Do you know your ACEs score? Take the quiz now.
A subsequent 2015 study of 17 post-secondary schools in the University of Minnesota System echoed the CDC’s findings; 70% of students polled reported at least one adverse childhood experience and 26% of respondents reported two or more ACEs.  The more adverse childhood experiences one has, the risk for other negative health and behavioral outcomes increases (including difficulty completing school).  Both studies found a statistically significant correlation between ACE scores and demographic/sociocultural status.
The higher one’s ACEs score, the more likely one is to, as an adult, have significant health, emotional, and behavioral problems like cancer, financial problems, depression, heart disease, smoking, and obesity.  When children are exposed to sustained trauma and toxic stress, the body produces stress hormones that alter the neural pathways of developing brains (Perry et al.,1995). When the brain is stressed–flooded by powerful hormones like cortisol–the body struggles to recover to a “normal” state, which in turn increased the chances for developing a “trigger” response (or anxiety) to future stresses (Stevens “ACEs Science 101”).
This year, the new Community of Practice is preparing a literature review to understand in detail the research that exists on ACEs science and ACEs in education. They have networked with colleagues at Morton College, Heartland Community College, and National Louis University who are also exploring the impact of ACEs on college student populations. The group will work to address questions about applying best practices in ACEs mediation and classroom practices, assessment structures, and student success services. We hope to join efforts already under way at Harper that are increasing campus awareness of students’ mental health needs, relationships between empathy and rigor, helping students stay at Harper, and creating cultures of care. If you are interested in learning more about ACEs and education, or would like more information about the ACEs in Higher Education Community of Practice, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.