Mrs. Jones teaches tenth grade English and she has had enough of Hollis Robertson. Hollis is late every day; he disrupts class with his constant movement; he often falls asleep. Today, Hollis threw his notebook at another student and Mrs. Jones said, “Hollis, what is wrong with you? Get out of my classroom.” Hollis stormed out of the classroom, but his teacher could immediately see the hurt on his face. Hollis never came back to her class.
Mrs. Jones is a good, patient teacher who cares deeply about her students and wants the best for them. No one has ever taught Mrs. Jones about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research. If she knew about ACEs, she would ask Hollis not “what is wrong with you?” but “what happened to you?”
If she asked Hollis what happened to him, she would learn that Hollis lives in a house that could barely pass a safety inspection. His mother drinks to excess, and his father is serving a 10 month sentence in the county jail. Life is actually a little easier for Hollis when his dad is in jail because at least his parents are not fighting. Hollis lied about his age and got an off-books overnight job a nearby convenience store so he can buy food and things for the house. He really likes school, but it is often difficult to concentrate, so he has fallen behind.
Scenes just like this play out at schools, medical clinics, youth-serving organizations, therapy sessions, and workplaces every day across the world. We need to reframe our question to address the root of the behavior in addition to the behavior itself. Children like Hollis live with levels of toxic stress that change their brains and bodies. These children face a greater risk of heart disease, depression, illicit drug use, suicide, and many other physical and mental health hardships. Risk is the operative word, not destiny. Research tells us that children are resilient and with intervention they can overcome their circumstances. One small act can set a new course for a student like Hollis.
To learn more about how you can foster resilience, we invite you to join us for a free screening of Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope on Wednesday, April 26.