Research shows that Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, contribute to the likelihood of substance abuse and other health concerns later in life. Unfortunately, Arizona ranks higher than the national average for children who have experienced ACEs. These can include childhood traumas such as abuse and neglect. In fact, according to the Arizona ACE Consortium, “It is estimated that nearly 70,000 children in Arizona have more than five ACEs.”

As ACE exposure goes up, the risk for negative outcomes such as substance abuse also goes up. For example, the rate of alcohol abuse jumps from a one in 69 chance to a one in six chance for individuals who have experienced seven or more Adverse Childhood Experiences. The rate of intravenous (IV) drug use is even more startling, going from a one in 480 chance to one in 30.

Thus, the effects of these ACEs sometimes play out in our justice system, in our hospitals and in our shelters. The costs of childhood trauma, both to the individual and to society, are high.

Fortunately, there is so much that can be done. Why is it that two people who have had similar difficult experiences in childhood have different outcomes in adulthood? When trauma is well understood systems of discipline are geared towards learning and developing self-regulation skills, instead of punishment. Further, practices that create safety and trust (a biological necessity) are built into programs, such as education. Picture a child taking a mindful moment of breathing to calm their nervous system instead of escalating a situation with punishment, anger or an ostracizing adult response.

Additionally, when we understand the role that protective factors play in healthy child development, we are compelled to do more. Examples of protective factors include; caring adult relationships, positive senses of purpose and worth, caring communities and a positive connection to school. How often do we catch children being good, celebrate the incremental milestones or think of a strong relationship as a behavior management strategy?

The Coconino Coalition for Children and Youth (CCC&Y) works to ignite collective action to cultivate, honor and empower resilient, thriving communities by understanding the effects of childhood traumatic experience and mobilizing community action. One example of how we do this, is by providing training to school districts about trauma and resiliency.

When speaking with educators, I remind them that with Arizona having such a high number of children experiencing trauma, it is not a matter of if these children are in your classroom. Imagine not understanding trauma and delivering punishment to a child experiencing a behavior that has its root in the fight/flight or freeze response. When we do not understand trauma, we can cause further trauma.

The CCC&Y has collected research around the effects of trauma and has learned what circumstances are most likely to lead to resiliency, rather than to harmful behaviors such as addiction. We also have sought to understand and acknowledge the effects of historical injustices that have led to generational traumas and continue to show up as inequitable experiences for children.

Current examples of inequity can show up in various ways. For instance, the research is clear that children of color often do not have the same experiences in school as their white peers. They may be punished or even expelled for similar behaviors because of an adult perception ascribing different meaning and intent to students’ behavior.

In 2020, we must not forget that the global pandemic, while impacting all children, will be especially difficult for children and families who have experienced generational and historical traumas. At this time in history we are looking at who has resources, support and financial security when trying to meet the needs of their children at home.  We cannot forget that we have children in this State without access to computers or internet, that we have parents who have suffered their own trauma who are trying to balance being an essential worker with the education of their children.

The school districts and administrators I have spoken with are very aware of these concerns and seem quite diligent about finding the resources to meet the needs of all children during this unprecedented time.  However, they certainly cannot do it alone, and this would be a time for our society to pull together for all children.

Unfortunately, as a society, we often look at negative situations such as substance misuse and seek to blame the individual. It is not uncommon to wonder, “If I can turn out okay, why can’t you?” However, missing from this assessment is the understanding that substance abuse rarely happens without traumatic childhood experiences. It is also often related to social isolation and does not account for the fact that we all experience different access to protective factors throughout our childhood and adolescence that can help protect us, even at the neurological and bio-chemical level, from the effects of adverse experiences. A high incidence of protective factors can act as a buffer and even a game changer on the trajectory of substance abuse and other negative life outcomes.

When we take everything we know about childhood trauma, it implores us to do all that we can to prevent these adverse experiences, to create and promote as many protective factors in a child’s life, and develop ways in our own sphere of influence to help. Because our education system reaches most of our children, it is a great place to insert the relationships and protective factors our children require.

For instance, data from the Arizona Youth Survey shows that 70.5 percent of 10th graders in Coconino County are reporting a low commitment to school. This is a tremendous risk factor and something we can change, as a strong connection to a school environment has shown to be extremely powerful when it comes to preventing substance abuse. Our full report on risk factors, including research and background information, can be found at coconinokids.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/CCCY-Prevention-Plan-and-Needs-Assessment.pdf.

As a non-profit organization that has been here since 1972, the Coalition has attracted hundreds of members, from individuals to businesses, and we are proud of the long history of grassroots efforts for the benefit of children, youth and families in our community. We are committed to helping promote equitable access for all children. This requires a solid understanding and acknowledgement about what people have gone through and how our systems can both positively or negatively impact that trauma.  To learn more about these topics we have created free webinars available here: coconinokids.org/prevention.

Virginia Watahomigie, M.ADM, serves as the executive director of Coconino Coalition for Children & Youth.