19 July, 2021 | Posted by Michelle Hogan

Dr Judith Butler: What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

Dr Judith Butler What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse childhood experiences can have a lasting impact throughout the lifespan if they are not "dealt with effectively, supported and guided". 

Dr Judith Butler is a Trauma-Sensitive and Relationship-Based Approaches Expert in Early Childhood Care and Education. 

She will be leading the first in a series of expert-led webinars delivered by Portobello Institute discussing important topics in Early Childhood Education. 

You can register for our first webinar, led by Dr Butler, here. 

During the webinar, Dr Butler will explore what it means to be trauma-sensitive and how relationship-based approaches can guide children through trauma.  

She believes “this can’t be left to chance; this is too important” because adverse childhood experiences are so common.  

What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

“We now know that the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2011 has recognised adverse childhood experiences as a major public health challenge.  

“What that means is for children who have experienced adversity in childhood, if that isn’t dealt with effectively, supported and guided that that can have long term consequences for the child and as they become an adult right throughout their life span.  

“We know for example there is a famous study, the adverse childhood experience study from where that whole term was coined by researchers Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda and their colleagues, conducted back in 1995.  

“They said that adverse childhood experience refers to things like violence, neglect, witnessing violence in the home or community, having a family member who might have mental health challenges etc.  

“It just doesn’t stop then when the child is a child, we have identified that this has lifelong consequences and that person is more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, more likely to have mental health problems themselves, there are lots of other consequences if we don’t implement this trauma sensitive approach. It’s not just about the here and now but it’s about the lifespan.  

“For those interested in a trauma sensitive approach, it’s asking that whole question ‘what has happened to this child?’ rather than ‘what is wrong with him?’. What has happened to him that is making him angry or cross or sad?  

“It’s important stating to the child you have every right to feel angry, rather than sticking them in the corner. It’s about really knowing the child through a different lens, putting on a different pair of glasses and not just labelling the child as challenging or bold but realising there is a reason for this,” she said.  

Dr Butler explains how adverse childhood experiences are so common, most early years practitioners will have encountered this at some point.  

“Poverty is a huge adverse childhood experience and we have so many children in this country who are experiencing poverty and living in poverty which has huge consequences right throughout the lifespan.  

“I would think that every practitioner working with children in early childhood will have experience working with children who have experienced trauma at some stage.  

“Using a trauma sensitive approach is good for all children it is not just designed for the child who has been abused, it’s for every child and a relationship-based approach is central to healing connections with adults who are positive role models.  

“This can improve the future outcomes for every little face that is in front of you so it is important for every educator. 

“Whether they are doing it in their pre-service training so their initial education and training or as continued professional development it is essential for anyone who works with children and not only the children but also their families.  

“You can have parents coming into you who are really stressed, and whose experiences may not have been very positive for themselves of school. They are coming into us with that baggage so they mightn’t want to be as involved in their child’s education as we would like them to be.

"They have had bad experiences themselves so remember when you are working with families it’s important to have an understanding, to have compassion, being a parent is a difficult job, most parents are really striving to do their best for their children," she said. 

Dr Butler said there can be many triggers for children who experience adverse childhood experiences.

“Something that really fascinates me is Mother's Day and Father's Day cards for children in school and celebratory holidays that can signal for many children fun and celebration or a party.  

“For children who have experienced trauma these can really be triggers for them.

"I know myself from working with children over the years that weekends for many children can be quite difficult and the child is upset on Friday inside in your class because they are not going to see you on Saturday and Sunday. It can mean higher alcohol consumption in the home or more domestic violence in the home at the weekend.

“I know that for many children during lockdown in March 2020 when they were sent home from school, I am doing research on children who are homeless, many of those children were devastated when there was no school because there was no routine.  

“Children who have been impacted by trauma or adversity in their lives they not only need routine but they like routine because everything is predictable whereas they are probably living in a world where things are not predictable.

"We want the child to internalise positive beliefs about themselves, we want them to believe that they are loved and valued and welcome here. That allows them to feel safe and if they feel safe in your classroom or in your setting they will excel. No learning will come before safety," she said.

Dr Judith Butler will speak in more depth about trauma-sensitive and relationship-based approaches in early childhood care and education when she leads the Portobello Institute webinar on August 23rd. 

Register your place at the free webinar here.  

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