In dealing with emotional problems in schools, we often address the symptoms and not the root cause. Most emotional damage occurs as a result of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which in early years hinders learning and emotional growth. Later in life, ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, poor social skills, addiction, poor school performance and lack of success in the work place.
ACEs are associated the early environment of young children, such as living in a dysfunctional home, growing up in a racially segregated neighborhood, frequently moving, and experiencing food insecurity. These cause toxic stress which can change brain development and affect such things as attention, decision-making, learning, falling to addiction and responding to stress.
In order to deal with ACEs and prevent addiction and other negative behavior, we need to create new environments in our schools that can provide emotional support, friendship and positive experiences that will lead to self-awareness and self-confidence. We need to create spaces that will help our troubled students. The challenge to create these “new spaces” in our schools is overcoming major obstacles for creating a new environment: the demands for academic success, pressure to do well on state and national tests, large class sizes to meet budget limitations, absence of an instructional methodology that helps students deal with ACEs, and lack of a vision by school leaders to make this an educational priority.
These obstacles should not stop us from finding a means to address ACEs in our schools. Considering that the number-one factor in learning is the emotional state of students, we can develop programs that will improve learning by changing the environment for learning. One option is to establish an after-school program that can provide a “new space” that employs project based learning for troubled students.