Experts: Painful childhood events impact education
One expert calls negative early childhood experiences the most important public health issue of our time.
Amanda Sheffield Morris, speaking last week in Oklahoma City, said bad experiences set the stage for academic struggles in school and possible substance abuse during the adolescent years.
Morris, foundation chair in child development at Oklahoma State University, was a breakout session speaker during the Oklahoma Early Childhood Coalition Summit, organized by the Potts Family Foundation. Also addressing the issue was Lana Beasley, associate professor of human development and family science at OSU.
Examples of an adverse childhood experience, or ACE, are abuse, neglect and witnessing domestic abuse or substance abuse by a parent. Divorce, parental incarceration and poverty are other factors the speakers said can hamper the life of children as they enter school.
“Oklahoma has one of the highest ACE rates in the nation,” Morris said. Quoting Kaiser Foundation studies, she said
45.5 percent of Oklahoma children are “at risk,” with three or more ACEs. She said Oklahoma has one of the highest divorce rates, and 11 percent of children have witnessed domestic violence.
The good news, Beasley said, is that something can be done to offset the problems caused by adverse childhood experiences.
“Good quality early childhood education can make a difference,” she said.
Beasley cited work done on the Perry Pre-
The program, started in 1962 in Michigan, was offered to more than 100 disadvantaged children, and follow-up studies have been done over the past 50 years.
What was discovered, she said, is that project participants grew up to have fewer children out of wedlock, earned higher incomes and were less likely to receive government assistance.
“Communities and organizations have to come together to minimize ACEs,” Morris said. Intervention and prevention at an early age pay dividends, she said.
Beasley said the return on investment ranges
anywhere from 7 to 13 percent.
During a questionand-answer session, one participant wondered if money now spent on corrections could be diverted to early childhood education.
Both speakers said investments early in a child’s life are cheaper solutions than incarceration later in life.
They also encouraged mental health support for parents to prevent physical abuse as well as substance abuse, and advocated safe and affordable housing as well as investment in education.
“Our legislation and policies must focus on
child safety,” Beasley said.
Beasley said her work with at-risk families has at times left her heartbroken as she hears from parents who are afraid to send their children to school with violent students.
Some say they must drive to parks across town, because their neighborhood parks are not safe.
Morris said society needs to reshape its thinking toward students who struggle in school with academic and behavioral issues.
“Instead of asking them ‘what is wrong with you?’ we need to ask ‘what happened to you?’”