New Research Finds Health Problems from ACEs Start by Third Grade

Since the first ACE study in the mid-1990s, the research has been clear that having multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) leads to a higher risk of medical problems as an adult. New research has now found that there are short-term health and wellness implications of ACEs as well:  Kids as young as nine years old who have high ACE scores are seeing increased depression and physical health problems, often leading to absence from school.

These research findings buttress the NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Initiative’s whole-child approach to getting all North Carolina children reading on grade level by third grade. Improvement in children’s outcomes is possible with aligned, coordinated strategies that consider all aspects of children’s lives, including health, family and community, and educational environments. 

This article about the ACE study, which was conducted at Washington University in St. Louis, reports that there is a key part of the brain that is physically smaller in children who have lived with three or more ACEs by age eight, compared with their peers who have not. This critical part of the brain is involved in regulating emotions and decision-making.

The researchers also found that children with higher ACE scores were more likely to develop severe depression as adolescents and more likely to have physical health problems, like asthma and gastrointestinal disorders. These physical and social-emotional health problems meant that the kids were more likely to miss school. Chronic absence in the early grades has a direct impact on academic outcomes like third grade reading proficiency.

School systems and communities around the country have realized that addressing ACEs early, and building resilience and coping skills, can have a positive effect on children’s short- and long-term outcomes, including social-emotional health, physical health, self-regulation and behavior, and academic outcomes. This recent EdNC article highlights work being done around ACEs in Buncombe County, including raising awareness about ACEs in many different child- and family-serving fields, training school staff to understand ACEs and to build resilience among students, increasing counseling services in schools, and using school plays to educate parents about ACEs. Buncombe County Schools report that students’ social-emotional skills and academic scores have improved since the work began. Other counties are starting to talk ACEs, too, including Edgecombe County Public Schools and Rowan-Salisbury Schools, who are implementing trauma-sensitive practices through the Public School Forum’s North Carolina Resilience and Learning Project.

To improve third grade reading scores and children’s long-term health, education and life outcomes, the NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Initiative is creating partnerships among the state’s early learning and education, public agency, policy, philanthropic and business leaders to define a common vision, choose whole-child shared measures of success, and develop coordinated strategies that support children’s optimal development beginning at birth.


Three types of adversity that make for a tough childhood. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation