Portrait of a Learner 4-8

Systems Change

Adverse Experiences

Factor Connections

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How Adverse Experiences connects to...

Adverse Experiences are events that can cause trauma, including abuse, witnessing violence, and instability at home. The trauma that comes from experiencing adversity releases stress hormones that can lead to changes in the body and brain. Experiencing chronic stress during a critical time in development can negatively affect students' cognition, health, and well-being, as well as their academic achievement. The effects of Adverse Experiences are cumulative (at least to an extent), so the more Adverse Experiences a person is exposed to, the more it may affect their development. However, children and adolescents' brains allow a high degree of neural reorganization or plasticity, potentially supporting recovery and resilience following Adverse Experiences.

Main Ideas

Adverse experiences can include:

  • Interpersonal experiences that occur between people (e.g., physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, witnessing assault); and
  • Non-interpersonal experiences inflicted by some other source (e.g., a motor vehicle accident, a natural disaster).

Many children in the U.S. are affected by Adverse Experiences: for example, in a retrospective survey across 23 states, over 60% of US adults reported experiencing one or more Adverse Experiences before adulthood. Black, Latino, and Indigenous children are more likely to be exposed to early Adverse Experiences than their white or Asian peers. This is likely due to structural discrimination which has led to pervasive differences in Socioeconomic Status across racial groups, and thus a lack of access to resources. In addition, Black students and other students from historically and systematically excluded groups often experience racial trauma in the form of implicit or explicit biases or discrimination, such as school disciplinary policies.

Adverse Experiences can give rise to chronic stress and trauma, which can result in long-term changes to health, behavior, social skills, and brain structure and functioning, and have the potential to increase the risk for learning disabilities and ADHD. And students with disabilities and ADHD are also at increased risk of Adverse Experiences. These effects can have far-reaching consequences on learners' sense of Safety, Physical Well-being, and Emotions, as well as on academic outcomes. Appropriate Social Supports can help reduce learners' chronic stress, potentially buffering them from the negative effects of Adverse Experiences. Educators have an opportunity to offer the Social Supports so critical for students undergoing Adverse Experiences, and can reduce the likelihood of school-based trauma: for example, by avoiding disciplinary policies that disadvantage students of systematically and historically excluded backgrounds, and that aren't supportive of the needs of those students who also have ADHD or learning disabilities. In addition, a supportive and attentive classroom environment can help students with Adverse Experiences close academic opportunity gaps.

Finally, promising research has shown that children and adolescents' malleable brains have increased opportunities to form new connections, and to recover and learn from experiences of trauma. There is significant variability in learners' paths to recovery from trauma, so more research in this area can contribute important insights into interventions and recovery.

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