When teachers have experienced stressful events in their own childhoods, it could shape the way they build classroom climate for their students, a new study suggests.
The paper, published in the Children and Youth Services Review, found that early childhood classrooms where the teacher had been exposed to more adverse childhood experiences scored lower on a measure of social and emotional climate.
Adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs, are a framework for understanding trauma and traumatic stress, first developed in a study in the 1990s by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the health provider Kaiser Permanente. In that study, researchers asked participants about a range of issues, including abuse, neglect, family incarceration, and exposure to other problems at home as a child. Having experienced more of these events was linked to physical and mental health problems later in life, and worse outcomes in education.
Much of the conversation around ACEs and schools has focused on how they affect students—and how educators can create culture and structures that can lessen the impact of these stressors and support academic success. This new study turns the focus to teachers.
In the study, researchers surveyed about 350 childcare providers and early education teachers in a southeastern state in the U.S. about their exposure to ACEs. Then, the researchers pulled a random sample of these teachers and observed their classrooms, using an assessment tool designed to measure the social and emotional climate.
The group of early childhood teachers were more likely to have had an adverse childhood experience than the general population: 73 percent self-reported at least one ACE, compared with 62 percent of respondents in a recent national survey by the Centers for Disease Control.
This could be in part due to the demographics of the sample, said Grace S. Hubel, an assistant professor of psychology at the College of Charleston, and the lead author of the paper.
Having experienced ACEs is correlated with economic insecurity, and childcare workers are “among the most economically insecure workers in the United States,” the authors wrote in the paper. Additionally, about 60 percent of the teachers surveyed were black, and children of color are more likely to have experienced ACEs, Hubel said, “because of structural inequities and other issues like racism in our country.”
Teachers who reported more ACEs scored lower on the measures of teacher-facilitated classroom social and emotional climate, after controlling for other factors. Looking at each experience separately, one was a particularly strong predictor of classroom environment—teachers who lived with an adult who was incarcerated had significantly lower scores on the observation measure. Experiencing childhood physical abuse or emotional abuse were also “marginally” related to lower scores, the researchers wrote.
Given these results, early childhood systems should be thinking about how to better support teachers who have experienced ACEs, Hubel said. The study suggests a few different ways that programs or school systems could do this, while also working toward a more positive classroom climate.
Experiencing ACEs can change a person’s response to stress, Hubel said. These teachers might have more difficulty regulating their response to some of the challenging situations that occur daily in early care settings, such as a child having a tantrum.
Mindfulness training might help teachers modulate their responses to stress in the moment, said Hubel. The method encourages being aware of stressors and resulting emotions, without responding or reacting to those thoughts. Previous research has shown that mindfulness training helps early childhood teachers deal with stress more generally, Hubel said.
The researchers also suggested training focused on building positive relationships with young children, and interventions to support teachers’ physical and mental health, such as wellness programs.
Regardless of the specific strategy, evidence suggests that training could be more effective if it’s also culturally responsive, Hubel said.
She pointed to the research literature on home visiting, support programs for families with new babies who are facing risk factors, including caregivers who have experienced ACEs. Some findings show that programs are more effective when providers are from the same cultural or ethnic group as the family, she said.
Early childhood teachers as a group are more diverse than K-12 teachers: In 2018, 63 percent of center-based early education teaching staff were white, 17 percent were black, and 14 percent were Hispanic, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California Berkeley. Given this diversity, cultural relevance in mental health related training could be especially important, Hugel said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.