A common discussion among educators is about the student who acts out in class, reminding us that there are always reasons. Maybe this student suffers abuse or neglect at home. Maybe a close family member has had a major health episode or loss of job. Maybe the family lost their home. These things happen, and the student’s actions are often a red flag that can alert us to a situation that needs to be addressed compassionately. But this post is not about those students. This post is about the ones who are suffering, but who do not wave the red flag.
At the beginning of this school year, I gave my students the Center for Disease Control’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey. The survey asks ten questions about serious, traumatic events that can happen in childhood; the ACE score is the number of questions answered “yes”. Higher scores correlate with higher risk of alcoholism, depression, suicide attempts, perpetrating domestic violence, being raped, smoking, COPD, liver disease, teen pregnancy/paternity and compromised work performance. A score of 4 correlates with a three-to-tenfold increase in risks of these conditions.
I invited students to share their scores with me (but not which questions they answered “yes” to) if they felt comfortable doing so. Among my students, I had three with scores of 6 and two with scores of 5. Of these students, I would have been able to pick out only two who showed any signs of problems. One went through a bout of depression during the school year during which she was unable to focus on schoolwork or homework for about a month. The other was a happy, cheerful, everybody-loves-her student whose only outward symptom was that she had trouble getting to school on time–it would have been easy to just conclude that she was lazy or insufficiently motivated. (Both of these students had ACE scores of 6.) The other three students with ACE scores of 5 or 6 were typical bubbly, cheerful, irreverent, mischievous teenagers. (Note that I mean irreverent and mischievous in the positive, fun-loving sense.)
My giving the ACE survey was prompted by two student deaths just before the beginning of the 2015-16 school year. One of the students was in a psychiatric hospital because she was in crisis, and appears to have died from negligence by the hospital staff. The other, however, wasn’t on anyone’s radar. She was one of those popular students who “had everything going for her” and “no one knew” how much she was hurting. However, I had expected that students with high ACE scores would exhibit low-level symptoms that, once I knew who to look at, would be evident and would fit into my neat perception of how these things are supposed to work. What I found was that I couldn’t see symptoms in three of my five students who had off-the-charts ACE scores.
I made my students a promise: if they shared their scores with me, I would privately check in with the ones who had scores of 4 or higher, to make sure they were on someone’s radar and were getting the support that they needed. Two said they were in therapy and asked me not to press them for details, so I didn’t. The others were resilient kids who fully understood how dysfunctional their lives had been (or in some cases still were), but managed to deal with it in ways that left them functional, productive, and outwardly happy. However, when I asked, they truly appreciated a chance to tell their stories, and I did them the courtesy of listening non-judgmentally and offering what support I could. For one of those students, after she told me her story, I offered to write her a college recommendation, first discussing her abilities and accomplishments as if she were a typical teenager, and then adding the backstory. She liked the recommendation very much, and evidently so did the colleges she applied to; she is now on her way to becoming a success story.
My experience with these students has had a subtle but significant effect on me. I no longer just watch for obvious symptoms from a distance. I make a point of looking for students who want to be listened to. If any of them looks even a little out of sorts, I ask if they’re OK. Often they’re just tired, but sometimes there is something more going on. Many of them respond that they’re not OK. Often they don’t want to talk (to me) about it, but I’ve never had a student who was upset that I took the trouble to check in.
This works in my adult relationships too. The more I try to notice people–friends, coworkers, etc.–who need someone to listen, the more they crop up everywhere. And more often than not, when I get a glimpse into their worlds, I come away more impressed and appreciative for the experience.