academic competency, bearing witness, behavior, Center for Disease Control, childhood adversity, early trauma history, explanatory narrative, National Survey of Children's Mental Health, NatSCEVII, personal agency, positive relationships, self-definition, sense of self, service learning, social competency
The news about our children’s mental health and well-being is chilling. In the last week there are reports that almost half of the nation’s children (34,825,978) have experienced one or more types of severe childhood trauma (National Survey of Children’s Mental Health), 13% to20% of children and youth under 18 years old have diagnosed mental disorders (Center for Disease Control), and at least 10% of the children sampled in the recently released National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence II (NatSCEV II) suffered seven or more different types of victimization within the last year.
It’s not hard to imagine how such high rates of adversity effect children’s learning, behavior, and emotional control. What’s difficult is knowing how to reverse the trend. The Acknowledge, Connect, Teach (ACT) strategy provides some ideas about how to get started.
Bearing witness to the adversity in children’s lives is not easy. Survivor children are often judged harshly when their behavior puts them at odds with those in authority. Society as a whole prefers to see them as perpetrators not victims, as violent not violated, and as antisocial not anxious. Taking a stand for them requires courage. And a willingness to shift the blame for their failures toward those responsible for their care. Someone needs to speak on their behalf, to ask “what happened to you?” rather than “what did you do?”
Positive relationships with children begin with showing an interest in who they are. Connections are made when adults listen to children’s stories and cultivate their dreams. Repeated opportunities to collaborate with caring adults give children the support they need to develop their strengths. They grow more confident in their ability to make good choices and try out new behaviors. Though progress is sometimes slow, and relapses common, the long-term commitment of emotionally available adults is an invaluable resource for children struggling to overcome early adversity.
The ability of children with early trauma histories to achieve social and academic competency is seriously compromised by their diffuse sense of self, and powerless explanatory narrative. Helping them overcome these obstacles requires teaching them how to use their strengths to make a difference. Service learning allows children to acquire a more defined self-definition. Their sense of personal agency improves as they observe the impact of their good deeds on other people’s lives. They grow more aware of their ability to respond in caring, respectful ways. This helps them mobilize their inner resources to turn toward the future, trying out new roles, and increasing their capacity to learn.