Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Trauma-Informed School Approach

What are the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and why is it important for educators to know about them?

Adverse childhood experiences cause trauma. Trauma affects brain development and the ability to effectively learn. To address the negative impact of trauma on learning, a new approach to behavior is being introduced in schools nationwide: The Trauma-Informed School Approach. The Relationship Foundation is offering workshops and training on this approach for teachers and administrators. Here are the details.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) were originally measured in a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente, a health maintenance organization in San Diego, CA. The ACEs study began in 1995 and surveyed 17,337 participants. The study identified ten specific ACEs, which are:  

  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Physical neglect
  • Parental Abandonment (divorce, death, etc.)
  •  Domestic violence
  • An incarcerated family member
  • A parent with a substance addiction
  • A parent with depression or another mental illness. 

The study revealed that two out of three people had at least one ACE, and the prevalence of them proved to be a strong predictor of difficulties with learning, social functioning, health, and well-being, even into a person's adult years. Put simply, ACEs create long-lasting struggles.

Awareness of the ACEs by educators is leading to the emergence of the Trauma-Informed School Approach. A Trauma-Informed school works to create an atmosphere of emotional and physical safety for their students, which has been shown to positively impact both their personal and academic lives. Understanding that trauma results in toxic stress to brain architecture, putting a student in fight, flight or freeze can give educators a broader perspective on student behavior. Given the pressure brought on by the ACEs, it is clear that disruptive behavior is actually a coping mechanism. When disruptive behavior is recognized as something out of the student's control, educators gain a new perspective which has them ask not, "what is wrong with you?", but rather, "what happened to you?"

In 2009, Lincoln High School, a school for suspended students in Walla Walla Washington, became the first Trauma-Informed school. Their approach was so successful that over a three year period, the suspension rate went from 796 to 135 and graduation rates increased five times. An element at play in the major shifts that occurred at Lincoln High School was the staff's understanding and implementation of Trauma-Informed thinking, which emphasizes how the presence of even one supportive adult in a students' life can help build trust resilience. 

The difference between being able to overcome and not being able to overcome a traumatic childhood is simple. It’s a trusting relationship -- someone who believes in the child.

Change happens at the speed of trust.

Our book and our curriculum have been endorsed by Jim Sporleder, the former principal of Lincoln High School. For more information, go to

For more information on our Trauma-Informed program, please call (212) 477-0522 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.