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Why every teacher needs to know about ACEs in a post-lockdown education world

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and we fully endorse this initiative here at Future Action. It is an ideal time for us all in education to think about mental health, tackle stigma, and find out how we can create a society that prevents mental health problems from developing and protects our mental wellbeing.

In this week’s blog we are looking at why it is essential that every frontline teacher knows about Adverse Childhood Experiences in a Post-Covid education world.

Understanding this will improve your wellbeing and help you support your young people more effectively during this challenging time.

Here at Future Action, we have talked to dozens of teachers since lockdown in mainstream secondary school settings and we are hearing the same messages ranging from:

  • Behaviour has generally deteriorated since lockdown

  • More and more children are disengaged.

  • More children have less resilience

  • Attendance figures are down.

We recently came across an excellent blog post by Geoff Barton, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders titled ‘What we need to know is why behaviour is a significant issue’ reporting similar conversations.

This is the intro from Geoff’s blog:

‘Last week, I met a seasoned veteran of headship. She’s led several schools in different parts of the UK, and she said something that unnerved me: “Geoff,” she said, “you have no idea how different young people are these days from when you were a head”.

Really, I wondered. Have young people actually changed?

So, earlier this week, I asked ASCL members to share their experiences of the behaviour of young people since the pandemic and whether standards had declined.

My goodness. I wouldn’t have expected the response I got – the sheer volume of responses or the bleak depiction of what they said.

Now, look, this is a difficult topic. The last thing we want to do is give the impression that pupils are running amok. Most young people are respectful, polite and abide by the rules with an understanding that those rules exist for the good of everybody in maintaining an environment that is safe and conducive to learning.

Similarly, it has always been the case that the behaviour of some pupils is challenging for a variety of reasons, and managing those issues is part and parcel of school leadership. The issue here is whether poor behaviour is more prevalent and worse, why that might be the case, what impact this may have on institutions and individuals, and how it might be addressed.

Here's a sample of the messages received:

  • Since the pandemic behaviour is unrecognisable. It is manifesting itself in dysregulation on a scale never seen. Calm refusal to comply with basic expectations is regular now. Extreme anxiety. Many students do not see the logic that they have come to school and therefore need to go to lessons. Not coming to school at all is more common.

  • An issue which was never a problem before, is pupils walking out of their classes for little reason and refusing to engage with teachers but just content to wander the corridors. Whilst the numbers are very small it is highly disruptive taking up hours of staff time.

  • Social media is adding to the challenge with incidents happening outside of school which are then brought into school, and we just don’t have the capacity to deal with them.

  • Post Covid we have seen a rise in the behaviour we previously did not have issues with. Basic compliance, non-attendance, defiance and a lack of respect has for a small core become the norm.

  • The disruption to students' education has led to some of them losing all their 'filters' about how to behave or speak in a particular context. We have experienced vandalism of property, such as toilets, increase way beyond anything we had experienced before.

  • A core group of pupils refuse to go to lessons, refuse to follow simple instructions and challenge sanctions on a daily basis; achieving compliance is an hourly struggle with these pupils who no longer respect what education has to offer and see schooling as optional.

It is clear from the messages received, and what we are hearing in general, that behaviour has become more challenging since the pandemic, and that it is adding significantly to the pressures on school leaders and staff.

Indeed, some respondents made the point that it is contributing to staff retention problems as a factor in teachers deciding to leave. Some of the messages we received also alluded to the spectre of Ofsted because of the concern that inspectors may latch on to behaviour issues as a reason to downgrade a school.’

Looking for solutions

This was certainly the experience of our founder, Neil Moggan, as his school community grappled with the challenges of intergenerational trauma, lockdown trauma and also the trauma of a school in significant flux due to a change in school trust and key staff moving on.

For the first time in Neil’s 18 year teaching career he was struggling to build the quality of the relationships he wanted with his young people, particularly with his most challenging children.

Neil’s solution to dealing with these issues was understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences and the importance of emotionally available adults through trauma informed practice. Neil’s relationships with all his children transformed, reducing his send outs by 95% within one term, attendance improving in his classes by 5% and progress improved by 1 grade on average for his most challenging students within his exam groups.

Children became happier and healthier, low level disruption reduced significantly and children became more engaged in their learning. Let’s deep dive into what ACEs are.

What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

Trauma occurs when children are exposed to events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope with what they have just experienced.

These can range from Big Traumas such as:

  • Child physical abuse

  • Child sexual abuse

  • Child emotional abuse

  • Emotional neglect

  • Physical neglect

  • Mentally ill person in the home

  • Drug addicted or alcoholic family member

  • Witnessing domestic violence

  • Loss of a parent to death or abandonment by parental divorce

  • Incarceration of family member

To smaller traumas such as:

  • Moving house

  • Birth of a new sibling

  • Failing at an exam

  • Friendship issues

  • Illness/injury

  • Loss

The key thing to remember is that all of us process trauma differently so what might have a significant impact on one person may not have such an impact on another.

Toxic Stress

When our body perceives that we are in danger it releases cortisol and adrenaline to keep us safe. These chemicals are great, for example, if we are crossing the road and we see a lorry flying towards us and they help us get out of the way. However, prolonged exposure can lead to physical illness, mental illness and early death.

Research completed by Brown, D.W. et al (2009) in their Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Risk of Premature Mortality study found that ACEs are a leading determinant of the most common forms of physical illness such as cancer, diabetes & heart attacks, mental illness such as depression and anxiety, and early death in the Western World.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study)

The ACE Study was one of the biggest Public Health Studies of all time. Researchers interviewed 17,000 people and found that ACEs are the leading determinant of the most common forms of physical illness, mental illness and early death in the Western World. Cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, depression and anxiety are all linked to ACEs.

ACEs set people on a journey from childhood trauma to early death, following a predictable pattern outlined in this image.

Mechanisms by which adverse childhood experiences influence health & wellbeing throughout the lifespan.

Source: Brown, D.W. et al (2009) in their Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Risk of Premature Mortality study

What about the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences in schools?

As the number of ACEs increases so does the chances of the young person having; learning difficulties, weak attainment, low attendance, low engagement and/or violent behaviour.

Learned Helplessness

According to Award-winning author, Dr Mine Conkbayir, Childhood trauma typically gives rise to learned helplessness in survivors.

Characteristics include:

  • Feeling useless

  • Wondering what’s the point

  • No one cares

  • Low motivation

  • Low self-confidence

  • Low/no expectations of success

  • Difficulty with persisting

  • Not asking for help

  • Ascribing a lack of success to a lack of ability

  • Ascribing success to factors beyond their control, such as luck.

As educators , you may well have seen and heard similar, or wondered why some children don't even try. It is vital to be familiar with Learned Helplessness and the possible signs, to avoid misjudging and labelling.

Not having any control over, or options to escape an abusive childhood takes its toll in countless horrific ways. Healthy brain development and function is impaired, which impacts self-regulation, behaviour and learning.

A story of hope

It is not all doom and gloom though, as research shows that a range of protective factors, before the age of 18, can help interrupt the cycle from childhood adversity to early death.

It is very difficult for teachers to provide the first 4 protective factors but we believe that teachers can absolutely provide the final 4 protective factors:

  • When I was a child there were people who helped me feel better when I was sad or worried.

  • When I felt bad I could almost always find someone I could trust to talk to.

  • There are people I can count on now.

  • Someone in my childhood believed in me.

One emotionally available adult can make all the difference for a young person who has suffered from trauma and that one person can often be found in schools.

Often, as teachers we do not know what is going on outside of school in our students’ lives but we do know that so many of our young people are currently struggling in school with their wellbeing, attendance, engagement, and behaviour in a post Covid education world.

Here at Future Action, we will continue to advocate for a trauma informed approach in our schools, so that teachers can transform relationships to improve wellbeing, behaviour, engagement, attendance & progress in the short term and more importantly transform young people’s life chances in the long term.

The good news is that as teachers we can become more emotionally available to our young people through greater awareness and staff training, and that not only benefits them greatly but also benefits our own wellbeing.

Trauma informed blogs

If you would like to catch up on our previous blogs on implementing trauma informed practice in Physical Education, they are here for you:

In June, we will be releasing our online trauma informed PE course based on our Recover Roadmap. The Recover roadmap is a 7-step process to guide Physical Education teachers how to implement trauma informed practice to transform relationships, engagement, behaviour & progress within 90 days, and children's life chances in the long term.

We hope you found this week's blog insightful, we would love you to join our community of teachers committed to transforming the life chances of their children. Please make sure you subscribe to our newsletter to join us so you don’t miss the next edition.

Your Enhancing Engagement Scorecard:

We have created an enhancing engagement scorecard to help you track your progress in implementing Trauma Informed PE practice.

This scorecard acts as a valuable tool for self-reflection and continuous improvement. Click here to try our 2 minute scorecard.


'The 'RISE Up' teacher training course has given me a vast number of strategies and greatly enhanced my confidence in supporting young people with their mental wellbeing.

The amount of content given through video, as well as editable resources really help when delivering the unit.’

Bryony Radley, PE Teacher at City Academy Norwich

If you're interested in reading more testimonials from satisfied colleagues and young people, click here.

Get in contact

We hope you got value from today's blog. Get in touch if we can help you achieve your goals.

Have a great week.

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