The Lifelong Effects of Childhood Trauma, and How We Address It

A quote often attributed to Frederick Douglass contends that “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Whether the abolitionist spoke or wrote those words, they have particular resonance in the classrooms of today, where evidence clearly shows a connection between child maltreatment and academic performance. Childhood trauma is more widespread than we might suspect, resulting in broken lives with long-lasting implications.


The good news is that strategies exist – and are already at work in West Michigan – to repair and hopefully even prevent these maltreatments.


Maltreatment in Michigan

A 2018 brief published by Youth Policy Lab at the University of Michigan found about 18% of 3rd graders in Michigan have been subject of at least one formal investigation for child abuse or neglect. Some schools reported investigations involving more than half of their 3rd graders. Investigations are not uncommon for a third of students in high-poverty school districts.


In fact, the analysis found that early maltreatment was more prevalent then childhood asthma (8.4%), childhood food allergies (7.6%), childhood disabilities (5.2%) and the combined rate of child and adolescent obesity (17%).


Furthermore, the study found that third-graders involved in a maltreatment investigation perform worse in school than their peers. In literacy, 65% of students who were not subject to investigations were proficient – 8 percentage points better than students who had at least one investigation. There were similar gaps in math proficiency, 51% for students with no investigations compared to 44%, and in being held back a grade, 16% vs. 23%.


Explaining Adverse Childhood Experiences

The study of Adverse Childhood Experiences goes back to 1997, when the federal Centers for Disease Control released a study linking childhood trauma to a wide range of problems and leading causes of death in adults. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) describe all types of traumatic experiences that occur before 18, including psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; violence against mother; or living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or ever imprisoned.


In 2019, national data ranked Michigan 27th for ACEs with 70% of adults experiencing at least one ACE and 20% of adults experiencing 2 or more ACEs.


For the child or adult, this creates a tremendous lifelong impact on health and quality of life. For the community, the economic cost of these experiences totals $124 billion, including productivity loss, health care, special education, criminal justice, etc.


What this means in the classroom

Research shows children who have 4 or more ACEs are 32 times more likely to have learning or behavior issues in schools. This is partly because trauma changes the architecture of a developing child’s brain and physiology. These changes impair academic efforts by affecting memory systems, ability to think, to organize multiple priorities — in other words, the ability to learn, particularly literacy skills.


Students with three or more ACEs are 2.5 times more likely to fail a grade. Changes in a child’s neurobiology often result in a student having difficulty regulating emotions and reading social cues. This, in turn, compromises their ability to pay attention, follow directions, work with teachers, and make friends.


What can be done?

Safe, stable, and nurturing relationships can have positive impacts on a broad range of health issues and the development of skills. The CDC has produced guidance to reduce occurrences of ACEs.


Within West Michigan, many of those strategies are occurring in early childhood, K-12 and higher education institutions. Talent 2025 has backed many of the strategies noted in the CDC report, including:


Strengthen economic supports for families

  • Advocating for employer-led transportation solutions like Wheels to Work and supporting innovations in regional transportation
  • Encouraging employers to hire formerly incarcerated individuals, and advocating for these returning citizens to be employment-ready, with skills training and proper forms of identification
  • Promoting work-based English as a second language and high school equivalency classes to upskill the workforce

Ensure a strong start for children

  • Advocating for high-quality, affordable and accessible child care
  • Improving funding levels for Great Start Readiness Program
  • Expanding Reach Out and Read programming to all children in West Michigan
  • Advocating for increased funding levels for at risk students

Teach skills

  • Supporting the piloting of employability skills curriculum throughout the region
  • Increasing opportunities for students to be engaged in work based learning experiences

Efforts like these not only improve quality of life for individuals, they contribute to the overall wellbeing of West Michigan. This is how we “build strong children” and adults alike.


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