Free article: Adverse childhood experiences: Effects on behaviour

Published: Monday, 25 February 2019

Sam Garner writes about adverse childhood experiences and the effect they can have on a child’s behaviour in the classroom.


  • Children with higher numbers of ACEs are more likely to be lower attainers.
  • With support, it is possible for the behaviour of students who have a higher number of ACEs to change.
  • Building positive relationships can bring about change.

People are becoming more aware of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These are traumatic or stressful experiences in childhood that can have long-term mental and physical impacts. In order to understand the impact of ACEs in education, we have to look at how ACEs affect the brain. Here is a layman’s explanation.

The brain

Exposure to certain chemicals during childhood can shrink the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for processing emotion and memory and managing stress. A smaller hippocampus means children and adults with ACEs are less able to manage stress.

Another change in the brain caused by ACEs, that also reduces the ability to manage stress, is in our genomes. Epigenetics have shown that ACEs can change our genes. There is a detailed chemical explanation, which is too technical for the scope of this article, but the upshot is that ACEs mean that the genes’ stress response is ultra-sensitive. So this is a double whammy in reducing the ability to manage stress.

ACEs have also been shown to affect our neurocircuitry, which helps us with decision making, determining what is relevant and what isn’t relevant. It is reduced in children and adults with a higher number of ACEs and reduces the ability to react appropriately. There are also fewer neural connections to our frontal lobes and pre-frontal cortex. These connections help us rationalise fears, and with fewer connections we are more likely to experience a greater level of fear and anxiety.

In trouble

Looking at the impact of ACEs on the brain, it is easy to see why children with higher numbers of ACEs are more often in trouble and more likely to be lower attainers. They are less likely to care about school, less likely to do homework, and less likely to respond to punishments. If you look at statistics for exclusions, there is a high level of children with ACEs represented.

Three key steps

So, what can we do to support and change behaviour of students who have a higher number of ACEs?

In the book Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens, by Hauser, Allen & Golden, the authors studied 70 violent adolescents in a locked psychiatric ward and then their progress two years later. They found that some of the adolescents were thriving. They had finished school, had jobs, and a good support network. There were three key factors identified for the positive change:

  1. Reflectiveness
  2. Building positive relationships
  3. Motivation to bring about change.

Whilst we don’t deal with this level of behavioural problems in schools, these are the key issues to bringing about positive change.


Meta-cognition is huge in providing any support for children. Learning about how we learn has been shown to be highly effective by the Education Endowment Foundation. This also applies therapeutically, learning how our brain works and why we think as we do. Learning how this can be changed, that it’s not fixed, and the brain is flexible.

I’ve had some amazing conversations with students where they’ve realised they are not ‘evil’, that their brain developed because of their experiences and this can be changed. This can also help bring about motivation to change, believing it can be changed and it doesn’t have to be like that. It’s not a case of ‘this is how I am and will never be different’.

Building positive relationships

Another key factor for the changes was building positive relationships, particularly with an adult who could model self-regulation and discuss rationally. The power of positive relationships is huge.

I once met an ex-student I had worked with a lot on behaviour therapy when I worked in a school. He asked me who I thought he was most scared of at school. I suggested a particular male member of the leadership team who shouted a lot. He said no, it was you miss, but not in a bad way. He didn’t care if he was shouted at, or how many times he had detention, he cared about letting me down. This is the power of building positive relationships. It always reminds me of the sun and wind parable where they have the discussion on who is stronger.

The key for effectively managing behaviour, particularly with children who have suffered ACEs, is that aggression and harsh punishment do not work. For traumatised children it is vital they are not shouted at. It re-traumatises them and, considering their heightened senses, it will send them quickly into a flight/fight/freeze reaction. For this reason, inflexible strict school behaviour and punishment systems do not effect positive change. Having systems that create unnecessary confrontation will not effect positive change for children with ACEs. In my opinion, it is a process to weed out ‘undesirable’ students that may negatively impact results.

Motivation to bring about change

If you want to change the behaviour of students, ensure that consequences also have a ‘rehabilitative’ effect. The aim is to reduce behavioural issues, not punishment for the sake of punishment. Build positive relationships and model self-regulation. One of the biggest influences on students is what we model as staff. If we are supportive and self-regulated, they are more likely to be. If they see staff that regularly lose their temper and shout, they will model that.

We don’t solely learn from being punished for doing wrong, we need to be supported in how to do it right. It’s about having discussions on what alternative responses there could have been following a negative behavioural situation:

  • Would any different responses have been more suitable?
  • Could they try them next time?

Practise a more calm response. Changes don’t happen overnight; new connections need to be made in the brain overwriting old ones. Consistency and positive support are vital in changing negative behaviour patterns.

Children with higher numbers of ACEs will struggle in school. We have to take a supportive approach for evidence-based scientific reasons. We must ensure we aren’t retraumatising the children when school is supposed to be a safe place for them.


Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Sam Garner is an education consultant with specialist expertise in SEN and mental health in schools. She is a freelance trainer, and regularly speaks nationally and internationally. She has also written a series of brief targeted CBT programmes designed to be run by school staff with students, including Exam Anxiety and Self Harming (