Our Children

  • Middle School
Irene Smith

Difficult.  Trouble-maker.  Problem. Bad kid.  Defiant. These words are sometimes used to describe a student who threatens the classroom environment by challenging authority, refusing to comply, or who seemingly is disinterested in learning and makes sure everyone else is aware they won’t be participating. Many educators struggle to balance the need to avoid confrontation (focusing instead on positive behaviors) and the need for consequences when a student disrupts the learning of others.  

One of my students recently helped me reframe my thinking about this issue.  Her name is Mia and she conducted extensive research on a subject that is very personal and relevant to her, adverse childhood experiences. The assignment I gave her was to create an argumentative essay to demonstrate mastery of argumentative writing standards.  Mia wrote this essay with the intent to help educators better understand their students who have ACEs.  

Mia and the adults in her life who look out for her have given their permission for me to share her work. Most of what you will read next is in her own words, selections from her larger essay. I bolded some of her writing to emphasize what she says educators should be doing.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s)

By Mia Reyna

     We, young people who have experienced trauma, need you to understand that ACE’s really do affect many kids’/teens’ actions and their ability to function during school.

Teachers and others who work with children and young people need to be more understanding and not just kick kids out on their bad days or just assume the worst out of them.

Physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse,viewing death or losing a loved one, and neglect, and much more can have a tremendous impact on your life.These are some things most people aren’t open about, but can change a person mentally and physically. During school when students act out differently or unusually out of the blue or maybe continually, the teachers or principals are fast to write them up, suspend or even expel them but don’t always take their time to understand or try to figure out what is going on.

Yes, some kids are “hard headed” or aren’t open about what's going on in their lives. When you can see the pain or the hiding of someone's emotions or [their injuries,] yet act like you didn't see anything or take the time to understand, then why be somewhere where you have to work with students? Although you may never really know what's going on, I guarantee you can recognize    that students are going through something.

According to a major study, around 64% of adults have had at least 1 ACE and 12.6% had 4 or more ACEs. ACEs are very common and are caused from different experiences but are mostly treated similarly. Depression is often diagnosed, and the person is given a pill to take. [If the person chooses not to be medicated, he or she may] act out differently, or react in ways that aren't normal for most people, yet are normal for them. The person doesn’t realize what they are doing is unusual and/or doesn’t have a lot of self control, so they aren’t really getting the help they need, and the negative judgements of others adds to the problem.

A person with multiple ACEs has a higher risk of attempting suicide, having lung cancer, heart disease, depression and more. The exposure to early adversity can forever change the direction of a child's life. ACEs are like doses of poison to a kid’s brain. Toxic stress is within most kids with any percent of ACES in their lives, which can cause extra stress during school activities, including tests.  This high stress also affects the way they react to people or things. Therefore, ACES really affect school work and behavior.

Setting a kid with ACEs onto a destructive path can start with kicking kids out of school, giving them either more time at home where the issues that cause the “bad” behavior at school are and/or giving them more time in the streets, consuming drugs, and getting into trouble with the law.  This could potentially lead to the youth being put in and out of the youth justice system continually, eventually leading to prison. Therefore, that kid will grow to be as low as the teachers treated them; when instead, teacher compassion   could have had a tremendous positive impact on their lives.

Teachers can help the youth that have gone through bad things or who still are. Despite those walls of pain and suffering, teachers helping kids out can support kids’ positive development, including the ways they act in school, the differences in their learning needs, and they can also make kids feel loved and wanted at the same time.

There are kids who don’t have homes nor have parents, or a safe stable family to go home to every day. Their behavior inconveniences teachers, and many react to the problems by deciding,“It's not my problem if it’s out of school,” or “I have my own worries when I get home to my kids.”  A teacher is probably one of the few adults in [those kids’ lives] who is in a position to help.

Teachers and other school staff help students “be ready for the real world.” Unfortunately, for kids with ACEs the “real world” and society have already taken troubled kids over and has torn them apart.  Despite this, Educators have a huge impact on kids’ lives.

“Good job!!” “You are very smart,”“I can see you have very good intentions,” “You’ll make it far in life. I already know it,” “Are you alright?” “Do you want to talk about what’s got you so down?” Those are very few sentences that can help a student tremendously. Those words can keep them going down the right path and make them feel the worth that they have. Most of the time, kids with ACEs don’t hear any of that outside of school, and not hearing it within school makes the worthless feelings magnified and gives them zero hope for the future.

Taking just a little bit more time out of your day as a teacher, a staff member, or even as a parent to make sure or check up on other kids can really help. Studies show that 1 of 3 kids experience violence, and one of those kids hasn’t said anything about it. Some kids don't want other people feeling bad for them and/or are embarrassed of what you and others might think and are worried about how you see them.



  • Take your time to understand and figure out what is going on.
  • Make opportunities to talk to them and listen to what they have to say without distractions.
  • Don’t let their “tough” attitude or push back stop you from helping, because it is an automatic defense reaction, often something they don’t have control over.
  • Don’t assume they don’t have feelings just because they haven’t shown them to you.  Most kids with ACEs avoid any kind of vulnerability. They often don’t know who to trust.
  • Don’t minimize the destructiveness of drugs and other addictive substances. Get them help if you suspect a problem.
  • Help them to see that you believe in them.  Show them their good qualities and point out the ways they are resourceful and capable.
  • Sincerely care about them and their futures.
  • Help them see that they have can learn from their experiences and any mistakes they might make.  They don’t have to feel broken forever.
  • Help other educators respond to them in helpful ways too.

     The real world isn’t the same for everyone. Overall, students are most likely going to take their teachers’ advice if it’s given with genuine interest and concern, and in the long run, they will thank those teachers for being a heroic impact on their lives.

Confused. Angry. Challenging. A kid who needs me.  Reframing the identity of each child in our care will make us more effective at influencing them. As educators struggle to balance the need to focus mainly on positive behavior with the need for consequences when students’ learning is being disrupted, it’s good to consider the reasons and needs behind negative behaviors.  It’s important that we create boundaries in the classroom, with clear consequences, but let those be natural and caring consequences (time out with the counselor rather than the principal, for example,) presented by a patient teacher, with opportunities to quickly return to the warmth and acceptance of a nurturing classroom environment.  These boundaries and consequences should mean that we are adults who can be counted on to help when ACEs are overwhelming. Educators can demonstrate emotional regulation and compassion in a way that strengthens and empowers even our most challenged students. We can embrace the realization that we important to these, our children.

  • ACE
  • Communication
  • Student Engagement
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Irene Smith Board

National Board Certified Teacher at Discovery Lab School

Irene Smith teaches middle school Language Arts and Social Studies to clever, interesting, and energetic students.She is married to her best friend, Brad, and they have five grown up children.She loves backpacking on the Olympic Peninsula, spending time with her grandchildren, reading and writing books, and going to Shakespeare plays.

Twitter: @TeachLearnHope
Website: irenesmith.org