Moving Upstream to Prevention: The Underlying Role of ACEs and Trauma in Children’s Dysregulated Behaviors

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Understanding how children’s experiences of trauma in early life contribute to expulsions and exclusionary discipline in early learning

Young children who are expelled from child care and early learning programs miss out on the tremendous benefits that early education has for young learners. Families who have a child that has been expelled lose access to the child care they need to work and provide for their families. Worst of all, expulsions are much more common among specific populations: boys are four times more likely to be expelled than girls, and Black children and children with disabilities or learning differences are also at much higher risk of expulsion than their peers. Given the overwhelming evidence that early childhood exclusion has negative impacts on children’s social, emotional, and academic development, many states are implementing policies to prevent or even prohibit excluding children from early learning programs. 

When children are exposed to trauma and toxic levels of stress, supportive caregiving alone is not enough. Too many families are lacking the economic and social resources to be present and effective caregivers for their children, or to find the interventions their child needs to thrive. Early childhood professionals play an important role in connecting families to resources that can help.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic experiences that occur in childhood and have been associated with negative health and social outcomes into adulthood. These can include abuse, neglect, and household challenges like parental mental illness, domestic violence, substance use, and incarceration. Poverty itself is considered a significant adverse experience associated with negative social and mental health outcomes for children. 

Fortunately, the negative effects of poverty on children’s development are not a foregone conclusion. These impacts can be alleviated by investing in public policies that either reduce family poverty, or reduce the impacts of poverty on caregivers and children. These policies are also likely to reduce the risk of young children who exhibit emotional and behavioral dysregulation  being excluded from early learning programs.

Policy strategies should target not only the needs of the child, but the needs of the entire family. Two-generation strategies focus on alleviating family stressors by linking families to resources that address adult and whole-family needs, while also providing direct child health and development resources. 

Read the full brief here. Download previous policy briefs on the End Early Learning Exclusion webpage. 

These policy and practice briefs are highlighting the need for improvements in early care and learning environments; however, the recommendations have broad applicability across preschool to 12th grade learning contexts. 

Past blogs in this series 

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The NC Early Childhood Foundation is driven by a bold – and achievable – vision: Each North Carolina child has a strong foundation for life-long health, education, and well-being, supported by a comprehensive and equitable care and education system, from prenatal through third grade. We build understanding, lead collaboration, and advance policies to ensure each North Carolina child is on track for lifelong success by the end of third grade.

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