Teachers and coaches, counselors and mentors, foster parents and Big Brothers Big Sisters make considerable differences in the lives of children.
Society acknowledges this, typically, because people are conditioned to do so. It can be surface-level appreciation.
To dig beneath the surface is to realize a few things:
• Oklahoma children encounter more trauma and adversity than those in any other state, according to Joe Dorman, CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.
• Professionals in the children’s mental health field increasingly turn to children’s ACE (adverse childhood experiences) scores to get a psychological grip on kids’ trauma.
“It is really changing a way of thinking,” said Amanda Morris, a regents professor of human development at OSU-Tulsa. “Not ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What happened to you?’ ”
• As the ACEs approach to childhood trauma is more widely embraced, so is the psychological approach to buffering that trauma.
In 2014, Morris and OSU colleague Jennifer Hays-Grudo developed a framework to better understand factors that promote resilience in children with high ACE scores. They did so through a questionnaire evaluating the presence of protective and compensatory experiences, or PACEs, that could buffer kids’ trauma.
Two significant questions from Morris’ and Hays-Grudo’s framework: “Did you have someone who loved you unconditionally (you did not doubt that they cared about you)?” and “Did you have an adult (not a parent) you trusted and could count on when you needed help or advice?”
PACEs provide opportunities to build the brain architecture — or neuro connections — that allow a person’s body to calm down and carry forward with positive habits.
“Children with high ACEs and no PACEs have a very difficult time in life because they don’t have the opportunity to develop the skills and the competencies — the psychological skills, the social skills and even the cognitive, learning skills — to compensate for the abuse and neglect that has compromised how their brains develop,” Hays-Grudo said. “ACEs are not a death sentence. I know many people with high levels of ACEs who live very happy and productive and good lives.
“And that’s generally because they also had many other good things going on in their lives.”
That makes something Child Protection Coalition Executive Director Nellie Kelly said at a recent Tulsa children’s mental health forum read like gospel: “Become involved with a child and become that stabilizing adult who cares for them and becomes a cheerleader. There are kids who literally have never had an adult come to a school event and clap for them. Nobody at home tells them to brush their teeth, let alone that they’re proud of them and they do a good job at something. That’s what we can do on a very personal level.”
Fortunately, there are stabilizing adults across the city who are involved. They work in classrooms. They advocate in courtrooms. They open their homes. They volunteer at parks.
“What seems to be really important is that somebody is believing in you,” said OSU’s Morris. “Somebody has your back.”