adverse childhood experiences and some of the questions they ask of us

Sometimes, we learn as much from students as they do from us. Among the things I enjoy most about working in a University setting are the opportunities it can offer for meaningful conversations that prompt us to ask different questions, see new connections between diverse themes and experiences, and explore the implications for our thinking and practices. I have had several overlapping conversations of this kind over the past year or so. The most sustained of these has been with Juleus Ghunta, a Jamaican Chevening scholar who, as he describes in this blog post, came to Bradford to deepen his understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on his life. In a nutshell, ACEs are traumatic experiences – including various interpersonal forms of abuse and neglect as well as exposure to settings and cultures of violence and deprivation – that affect children’s health and development in far-reaching ways.

As Juleus describes in his account, coming across studies that link ACEs to a range of physical and mental health conditions helped him make sense of many of the challenges he has experienced. Getting a sense of these links and their significance via his work helped me to connect some important dots too – between the different forms and experiences of violence we look at in peace and conflict studies, between individual, interpersonal and structural approaches to healing and conflict transformation, between what we do at the University and the life experiences our students bring to their studies.

The questions this has raised for me about how Universities might support students who come with ACEs and/or other traumatic experiences have resonated in conversations with several other students. These have been students who have felt drawn to studying issues of peace, conflict, reconciliation or justice partly because those themes connect with their lived experiences. And at the same time, these students’ lived experiences of adverse childhood experiences and/or other forms of trauma make studying more challenging. As established in research on ACEs, people who have gone through these experiences are much more likely to be affected by a wide range of physical illnesses and mental health problems. This in itself, of course, makes it difficult to focus on studying and to do your best work. Students with traumatic backgrounds have also told me that they are facing anxieties that can feel paralysing, that they find it difficult to focus on reading and writing, that producing their assignments takes them much longer than many of their peers. Sometimes, these students do very well nevertheless; sometimes, we don’t have a sense of the struggles, the time and energy that goes into their work. Sometimes, such students are failed by a system that doesn’t recognise the challenges they face or manage to provide the right kinds of support. Sometimes, they hold themselves responsible for struggling or needing support; sometimes, they feel they are being a burden.

Engaging in one-to-one conversations and building relationships of trust and care can be very helpful in this context. Human connections are a significant dimension of what is needed to enable movements towards healing. At the same time, focusing on the individual level misses so much that we need to look at: The ways in which trauma is often intergenerational and related to long histories of oppression and systemic injustices. Challenging questions around responsibilities past and present. ‘The need’, as Juleus has put it, ‘for us to interrogate and reshape our cultural myths and conventions so that critical untold stories can finally be told, so that people who have long been invisibilised can finally be seen’. And, for those of us in Universities, the question of what we might do with this understanding – not least in order to develop systems and structures that value and make space and time for human connections.

At one level, the questions raised by all this are generic ones about how educational settings might become better at supporting students who are facing these challenges. It is good to see emerging work and good practice around the idea of ‘Trauma-Informed Universities’. The set of principles that have been identified as key to a trauma-informed approach include safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support and mutual self-help, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment, voice and choice, and a recognition of cultural, historical and gender issues. While these are clearly important to all organisations that work with people, they have a particular resonance in fields of study that are directly concerned with conflict, violence and structural injustice: How do we engage with these issues in ways that are supportive of students with lived experiences of different forms of violence and injustice, who may have felt unheard and unseen for much of their lives, who may still be experiencing the anxiety, shame, anger or fear that can come from these experiences? How do we take account of the diverse needs of all of our students in this, of the fact that the same topic or process can be experienced in very different ways, that a learning experience can be healing for some and retraumatising for others? How do we, personally and collectively, learn from our own lived experiences and from those of others? How might we begin to transform the assumptions, behaviours, cultures and structures that continue to cause traumatic experiences for some while keeping others safe? How do we conceptualise and experience the links between the professional, the personal and the political in relation to questions of care and justice?

Juleus and I are still talking about these kinds of questions. Among other things, and with others who believe these questions are important (including OpenEdge Transforming Conflict), we have been involved in designing an ‘Otherness Lab’ that will give students and staff an opportunity to open up and explore some of the difficult questions about voice, silencing, performances and the ways in which they are affected by complex dynamics of power and privilege. More on this here…

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