Key takeaways

  • ACE stands for adverse childhood experience and can refer to situations such as divorces, family incarceration, or family substance dependencies.
  • Research shows that ACEs cause long-term health effects, such as an increased risk of heart diseases and depression.
  • Educators should try and create a safe space for these students in their classrooms.

This blog aims to advise and guide educators who are looking to help the ACEs in their classrooms. For more information on helping those with multiple ACEs in your classroom, check out this blog.

Firstly, what are ACEs?

ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. This refers to unique home environments and personal lives that negatively affect a young learner’s development, and who therefore may require different supports from their schools. A child can be classified as having had an ACE for many reasons, but common examples include:

  • One or more of their family members struggle with substance abuse and addiction
  • One or more of their family members are incarcerated
  • Their family may struggle financially and the child may not have access to necessities such as food
  • One or more of their family members are physically/mentally/sexually abusive
  • They are neglected by their caregivers

It is likely that the students in your classroom have at least one ACE, though chances are they have had, or will have, more.

Studies have shown that ACEs are common across all populations but that they are more common within some population groups because of their social and economic environments.

Children visiting the library Children visiting the library teachers stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

The long-term effects of ACEs

Between 1995 and 1997, the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACEs study in Southern California found that there were stark correlations between experiencing adversity in childhood and long-term health problems.

People that experienced ACEs were 2.5x more likely to experience some form of heart disease and 4.5x more likely to experience depression. Additionally, at least five out of the top ten causes of death are associated with ACEs.

When a person is scared, their body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This response releases chemicals that support us in responding to the situation. However, if a child repeatedly experiences this feeling, the increase in this chemical release means their body becomes less sensitive to them. In turn, this will negatively affect the child’s ability to self-regulate their emotions and to think outwardly about their social interactions. This is because these children will be consistently in ‘fight or flight’ mode and, naturally, this mode doesn’t serve to help us think long-term or critically but to think fast and survive.

Young learners with ACEs are unable to switch off and leave this mode at home and are therefore likely in this ‘fight or flight’ mode when they enter your classroom.

But, unfortunately, educators are often unaware of the students that are suffering from this continual panic-driven survival mode, because the true home environments of students are often kept secret (especially if students are being pushed by family members to keep secrets for them).

The ACE Score Calculator

ACE scoring is used to determine the severity of a person’s childhood experiences. Researchers suggest that the higher the score, the bigger the trauma and the higher the likelihood of poor health. The score given at the end of the quick survey does not, however, accurately reflect the positive experiences young learners may have, such as those that help build resilience or positive coping mechanisms, so it may not be an accurate reflection of the current mental state of the student. We also do not suggest that educators ask all their students to take the test as a way of gauging if they have ACEs, but rather to just be aware that this is a tool often used by trauma researchers.

You can find the test here New call-to-action

What can I do to support my students who are experiencing ACEs?

The best thing an educator with ACEs in their classroom can do is to be there for them. In many cases, a teacher may be the only caring and supportive person in a child’s life, so this is an incredibly important relationship to nurture.

The next best thing you can do is to work with other experienced professionals who can appropriately help student concerns. For example, a school social worker, a school psychologist, IEP teachers and/or supports, and 504 coordinators. This doesn’t mean educators should signpost these students to other adults and discontinue helping, but rather that the support from the appropriate professional can guide the educator’s next steps. This help can be broken down into two main environments.

The best thing an educator with ACEs in their classroom can do is to be there for them.

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In the classroom

Once a teacher knows the truth about a young learner’s home life, it can be difficult (or really, impossible) to disregard it. Naturally, the way we interact with these young learners will change, but for those who didn’t have the same experiences growing up as the students, truly relating to them isn’t easy. Working with school counselors and inviting them into your classroom can be a great way to build trust with the students by increasing their interactions with other responsible adults in the school.

SEL strategies

Whilst we’re not suggesting that SEL is the answer to all ACE problems, social emotional competencies can help build positive coping mechanisms such as resilience and a growth mindset. The CASEL competencies self-awareness and social awareness help build these skills because they encourage the young learner to think of the future as one filled with possibilities and hope, rather than one of limitations and distress. Educators can also guide young learners with ACEs to form strong relationships with other adults (such as the school counselors) and other students, which will ideally make up for the lack of positive relationship building they may not get at home.

Unfortunately, embedding strategies such as SEL and simply being present for students cannot automatically improve their home lives, and the sad truth is that they are likely to continue to experience ACEs going forward. However, we can work hard to create a ‘safe space’ for students in their schools, ensuring, firstly, there is always someone at school they can confide in and trust and, secondly, that they know this. Being as positive an influence as possible on any young learner (but especially those with ACEs) is a formidable yet vital challenge and will serve to improve their future readiness.


CDC. (1995). About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study. Read it here.

NPR. (2015). Take The ACE Quiz — And Learn What It Does And Doesn't Mean. Access it here.

Author: Fern Dinsdale

Posted: 18 Jul 2022

Estimated time to read: 6 mins

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