Adverse Childhood Experiences and their Effects on High School Graduation Rates

Introduction

The startling effect adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have on children and adults came to light in a groundbreaking study first published twenty years ago. Andra et al. reported a strong link between exposure to abuse, divorce, substance abuse, and more to several health risk factors in adults (1998). The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study opened our eyes to the long-term impact of direct and indirect abuse and how child did not have to be abused themselves to suffer serious consequences to their physical, mental, and even social well-being.

Twenty years later, much has been researched and written about ACEs. A recent search on Google Scholar returned more than 860,000 results. However, little is known about the impact ACEs can have on a child’s education. Specifically, effects on high school graduations rates.

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If a child’s adult life and health could be significantly impacted by traumatic experiences during their childhood, it could be reasoned that their education would suffer as well. We cannot expect significant events to impact the lives of children only when they are outside the classroom. While there may be a variety of factors which cause children to leave high school without a diploma, it stands to reason ACEs could be one of them.

Background Literature

In 2017, the United States Census Bureau reported the highest high school completion rate in U.S. history: 90% of adults had a high school diploma or the equivalent (2017). However, that means approximately 23 million did not. While it shows a marked improvement in high school completion rates, there is still much to be learned about those who do not complete high school and why.

Much has been researched and written about high school graduation and completion rates especially since the implementation of No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLBA). One of the goals of NCLBA was to standardize how states calculate and report high school completion rates (Evans, 2015). NCLBA also authorized of a wide range of dropout prevention programs but it did not require schools to provide explanations or reasons as to why students drop out (Evans, 2015).

In an extensive review of data and literature, R. Murnane (2013) concluded an increased focus on the quality of education driven partially by NCLBA may have actually had a negative impact on graduation rates. While states strived to improve the quality of education and increased the requirements to earn a high school diploma, the tougher graduation requirements may be too much for a large percentage of economically disadvantaged students who have weak cognitive and socioemotional skills (2013). However, Murnane’s report was focused largely on explaining the numbers and less focused on why some students have weaker cognitive and socioemotional skills.

Shortly before NCLBA came the first research to closely examine risky behaviors and diseases in adulthood and the exposure to traumatic events. The research was conducted for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in conjunction with Kaiser Permanente. Andra et al. (1998) focused on three categories of childhood abuse: psychological abuse, physical abuse, or contact sexual abuse. More than 60% of the adults surveyed reported they had experienced at least one ACE, the most prevalent being exposure to substance abuse in their homes (25.6%) (Andra et al., 1998). One in eight experienced four or more ACEs. Those who experienced four or more ACEs were anywhere from four to 12 times more likely to have increased prevalence and risks ranging from alcoholism and depression to suicide attempts (Andra et al., 1998). In other words, the higher the ACE score, the lower the health outcome.

C. Blodgett and J. Lanigan (2018) reported similar results when looking at ACEs and school outcomes. School-related problem among elementary school students increased as the number of known ACEs increased. Notably, the relationship between ACE exposure and school-related problems was the same across gender, race, and school poverty (Blodgett & Lanigan, 2018). Schools are in a powerful and unique position to reach these students. However, teachers, administrators, and staff must have an understanding of ACEs and the risks they carry. With knowledge and understanding, schools stand to play an important role in identifying students who have been exposed to ACEs and are at risk of academic struggles (Blodgett & Lanigan, 2018).

In a cross-sectional retrospective survey conducted in Wales, United Kingdom, Bellis et al. (2018) examined the association between ACEs, poor childhood health, school attendance, and if things like support and friendship can counteract the negative effects of ACEs. Bellis et al. (2018) found a six-fold increase of high school absenteeism in students who reported four ACEs events when compared to those who reported none. The findings also suggest schools could improve attendance if staff knows and understands ACEs and is able to support children who have experienced them (Bellis et al., 2018). However, Bellis et al. found little evidence of schools adopting ACE models (2018).

One school district implementing such a model is TRICO Community Unit School District 176 in southern Illinois (C. Lodge, personal communication, November 4, 2018). The TRICO Resiliency Team launched “Building a Trauma Informed/Trauma Sensitive Culture at TRICO” in the fall of 2018. The program includes educating staff on ACEs as well as identifying students who may be at risk. C. Lodge said one of the earliest steps of the program included asking all teachers to review a list of students who attend TRICO. Teachers were asked to put their initials next to any student they knew three or more facts about, not including facts easily learned through the district’s student information system (C. Lodge, personal communication, November 4, 2018). From that, the Resiliency Team divided all students into small groups of 10 or less and assigned each group to a mentor. Mentors include teachers, administrators, and support staff, including custodians and cafeteria personnel. C. Lodge reports the small groups meet with the mentors once a month in an effort to build relationships. She said it increases the likelihood of adults reaching students who might otherwise be overlooked, especially students who may have ACEs and are more likely to become disengaged in school (November 4, 2018).

In a small study involving 13 students who were repeating ninth grade in the southeastern U.S., DeHart, Iachini, and Petiwala (2016) strong connections between ACEs and school disengagement behaviors. Students who reported experiencing at least one ACE also reported changes in their grades, attendance issues, and suspension (DeHart, Iachini, & Petiwala, 2016). Even more startling is that 10 of the students who experienced at least one ACE reported these types of disengagement behaviors began at the same time the ACE occurred or shortly thereafter (DeHart, Iachini, and Petiwala, 2016).

Valkov (2018) concluded dropping out of school is the end cause of school disengagement. According to Valkov, identifying disengagement early could reduce the risks of dropping out later. Positive relationships with parents and a positive school climate provide what Valkov referred to as “protective factors” and reduce risks of students dropping out. Valkov also called for addressing school dropout as not only a social problem but also a health problem.

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