When children five years old and younger experienced a traumatic event in their lives, the fall-out from that event can show up in learning and behavioral problems by the time they enter kindergarten, according to a new study.
Traumatic events, also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), can range from physical, sexual or psychological abuse and neglect, substance abuse, mental illness, violence in the home to a family member in jail; anything that causes a great deal of stress or fear in a young child’s life.
The study, "Adverse Experiences in Early Childhood and Kindergarten Outcomes," in the February 2016 online edition of Pediatrics, includes data on more than 1,000 children in large U.S. cities whose teachers rated school performance at the end of kindergarten.
Students who'd experienced one or more previously reported ACE were significantly more likely to struggle in the classroom, displaying below-average language, literacy and math skills, as well as aggression and social problems.
The more adverse events a child experienced, according to the study, the more academic and behavior problems increased.
While it’s often said that children are resilient, and they are to a certain extent, when they are exposed to continuous traumatic situations, their body’s natural way of dealing with stress changes and the stress becomes toxic resulting in a higher risk of behavioral challenges, sickness and mental health problems.
Children who experience traumatic stressors will often look to the adults who care for them for reassurance that things will be okay and that they will be protected.
The most important adults in a young child's life are his/her caregivers and relatives. These adults can help reestablish security and stability for children who have experienced trauma by:
• Answering children's questions in language they can understand, so that they can develop an understanding of the events and changes in their life
• Developing family safety plans
• Engaging in age-appropriate activities that stimulate the mind and body
• Finding ways to have fun and relax together
• Helping children expand their "feelings" vocabulary
• Honoring family traditions that bring them close to the people they love, e.g., storytelling, holiday celebrations, reunions, trips
• Looking for changes in behaviors
• Helping children to get back on track
• Setting and adhering to routines and schedules
• Setting boundaries and limits with consistency and patience
• Showing love and affection
Sometimes professional help is needed for children to learn new coping skills. In some cases family therapy is desirable. Parents or caregivers may wish to consult their pediatrician, their child's teacher, and/or their childcare provider for suggestions of professionals who specialize in early childhood mental health.
The authors of the study said they hope the findings encourage policymakers and practitioners to find ways for early childhood professionals like pediatricians and educators to work together to support at-risk children and their families.