Orchard Place Blog

Gladys Noll Alvarez of the Orchard Place Trauma Informed Care Project Speaks to Roosevelt Staff about the Hazards of Adverse Childhood Experiences

In the context of a poker game you can’t do much better than four aces. But in the life of a child odds are that four ACES will end up a losing hand. That’s one of the takeaway points made by a documentary film called Paper Tigers that’s been the basis for two Wednesday afternoons’ worth of professional development at Roosevelt High School.

On December 2nd the Roosevelt staff gathered for a special screening of the film at Fleur Cinema that was also attended by administrators from around the district and education students and faculty from Drake University.

Paper Tigers examines Lincoln, an alternative high school in Walla Walla, Washington. The staff there engages students in a model that’s based on the ACE (adverse childhood experience) Study conducted in the 1990s under the joint auspices of the Kaiser Permanente HMO and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). From the study a matrix was developed that screens students on a range of ten predictors of difficulty in school and, ultimately, adult life. Students who report a score of four or higher on the ACE matrix of factors like sexual molestation, domestic violence in the home, drug abuse/addiction by parent[s] are not beyond help but they are at heightened risk of everything from trouble in school to poor physical health to incarceration.

Children who are exposed to many adverse childhood experiences may be overloaded with stress hormones, leaving them in a constant state of fight or flight, and unable to focus at school.

The number of ACEs was strongly associated with adulthood high-risk health behaviors. Compared to an ACE score of zero, having four adverse childhood experiences was associated with a seven-fold increase in alcoholism… an ACE score above six was associated with a 30-fold increase in attempted suicide.

But here’s the good news: research also indicates that the sustained presence of as few as one stable, responsible, caring adult (e.g., a teacher) in a child’s life can offset all of the ACEs.

That’s one of the points that were reinforced by the follow-up PD presenter on Wednesday afternoon at Roosevelt, Gladys Noll Alvarez, who heads the Trauma Informed Care Project (TIC) of Orchard Place/Child Guidance Center.

Teachers and administrators in the film emphasized their commitment to love their troubled students unconditionally. It’s not about bleeding hearts it’s about developing brains, as Alavraez demonstrated in her presentation to the Roosevelt faculty.

“We have to change the question from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What’s happened to you’?” she said. The consequences of multiple childhood traumas, acute and/or chronic, are evident in both brain scan images and outward behaviors.

Alvarez has spent her entire career dealing with traumatized clients and their families. She administered the ACE Score Survey to the Roosevelt staff in order that they might better understand the motivations for their own behaviors. And to make them more considerate of what their students might be carrying with them unseen into class.

“Another thing to consider is that many on our staff may not be from an area where ACE is common,” said Roosevelt Principal Kevin Biggs. “So the film and the follow-up to it can make them more sensitive to kids’ needs and give them additional insights into what’s making their students tick.”

“We all need cheerleaders,” Alvarez said. “It really matters that someone notices and cares whether or not you show up.”

So if a child misses out on the building blocks of early brain development that occur in the natural dynamics of a healthy household and relies on poor coping strategies aimed at little more than basic self-preservation, “they need to be taught resiliency; the ability to recover,” Alvarez said.

The stakes are high and across the table are four (or more) Aces. But in this pecking order one committed teacher beats ‘em.

Orchard Place is a nationally recognized leader in children's mental health and juvenile justice services.