Childhood Adversity

The learning curve in Africa is steep. What makes this statement significant is that newcomers to Africa often fail to spot this reality; at least in our experience. In fairness, it isn’t easy to appreciate the steepness of the learning curve. It happened to us, and then again, and then again.

If the problems in Africa are so obvious – poverty, hunger, under-resourced schools – surely the solutions are equally obvious. Provide a hungry kid with food, clothes, help with homework, a coach or mentor, and he’s bound to perform considerably better in school and life. Or so one might assume. The reality is not this formulaic, and it can deal a heavy blow to well-intentioned volunteers.

Too many failures and the volunteer is at risk of abandoning their cause. Worse still, the volunteer may become critical of those he/she is trying to help and wrongly conclude that they are “the problem”.

Home of a grade 11 boy we have known since grade 8.

“I wish someone had told me to hold my opinions and beliefs lightly, because they can get in the way of understanding”. 

– Zita Cobb (Canadian businesswoman / social entrepreneur)

Knysna (White Location overlooking Thesen Islands & Knysna town centre)

Poverty in South Africa is the norm, in that it impacts the majority of the populace. The majority live in poverty and suffer food insecurity. The unemployment rate among young people approaches 50%.

The learning curve in Africa is steep to the extent that we do not comprehend the fallout from these statistics, and years of childhood adversity. Smiling faces, laughing children, and neatly pressed school uniforms can conceal the damaging effects of growing up in adversity.

Knysna

Some might argue that children are resilient, and will overcome childhood trauma and adversity. Findings from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) – Kaiser ACE Study conducted in California (1995-1997) demonstrate otherwise.

ACE is the acronym for Adverse Childhood Experience. Over 17,000 members of an American health insurance plan participated in the original study, followed by ongoing surveillance of the original study participants.

The study’s findings revealed how Adverse Childhood Experiences, prior to age 18, strongly related to the development of risk factors for disease and well-being throughout life.

Ace scores are calculated using 10 questions, whereby each YES answer counts as 1 point towards an ACE score total of 0 to 10. The 10 questions deal with issues such as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, living with an alcoholic or drug user, whether parents were separated or divorced, whether a  household member went to prison, etc.

Link to: ACE Questionnaire

Knysna (Concordia Location)

In the following video, Dr. Robert Anda explains the cumulative risk-effect between higher ACE scores and greater health and social problems, including smoking, alcohol use, drug abuse, promiscuity, teen pregnancy, early onset of sexual activity, suicide, tendency towards domestic or sexual violence, and chronic disease.

ACE Video – Dr. Robert Anda (2:38 mins)

Individuals with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers, 7 times more likely to be alcoholic, twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer, 32 times more likely to have a learning or behaviour problem in school.

ACE scores of 6 and above shorten lifespans by 20 years.

Knysna (Concordia Location)- Jim providing a soccer ball

“…youth who have experienced trauma are at significant risk for impairments across various cognitive functions, including IQ, memory, attention and language/verbal ability; poorer academic performance and school-related behaviours such as discipline, dropout and attendance; and higher rates of behavioural problems and internalizing symptoms.” –Maynard et al 2017 (Effects of trauma-informed approaches in schools)

“…toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. A highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up,…” – Paul Tough (Helping Children Succeed)

Read the full book (pdf): Helping Children Succeed (Paul Tough)

Ace scores of 4 are common among the boys we know. Among many of the youth Jim mentors, ACE’s of 6-8 are not unusual.

There are 4 boys in the preceding photo, ranging in age from 15-16. One completed grade 8 before dropping out mid grade 9. Two dropped out mid grade 8, another stopped school in grade 7 (unable to read), and one recently returned to repeat grade 8.

The four boys have ACE scores between 6 and 9; one 6, two 8’s, and a 9.  All are struggling, and one is now in prison awaiting trial on serious charges.

Children with toxic stress live much of their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement. They don’t regard these coping methods as problems. Consciously or unconsciously, they use them as solutions to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame.”  – Jane Ellen Stevens

“What all this means, says Anda (Dr. Robert Anda) is that we need to prevent adverse childhood experiences and, at the same time, change our systems – educational, criminal justice, healthcare, mental health, public health, workplace – so that we don’t further traumatize someone who’s already traumatized. You can’t do one or the other and hope to make any progress.” – Jane Ellen Stevens Click for more: Aces Too High

What to do:

 1.  insulate infants and children from chronic stress and adverse environments.

Schools and institutions which advocate zero tolerance, corporal punishment, shaming, or lack of compassion serve to further traumatize.

Some schools in North America and elsewhere are enlightening teachers on the ACE study, with the goal of becoming “trauma-informed schools”.

2. Make sure youth growing up in adversity have caring, responsible, adults in their life.

Such individuals serve as a buffer from further adversity.

Now it’s time for us to pack our bags and prepare for the long trip back to South Africa. We look forward to sending our next update from the southern tip of the African continent, 13,240 kilometres from our home in Canada.

Thank you for continuing to follow our blog and support our initiatives.  

Janet, Jim, & Clarke

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