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PCEs and ACEs

There is a lot of information now on the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and how they change the brain in ways that make learning more challenging. Emerging also are studies which show how, combined with Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs), children can grow to be sensitive, strong, and capable adults. Building PCEs for the students in your classroom can be done with intentional small shifts in thinking and practice.

Myths about PCEs:

  • It is about happiness. Of course, we feel better when our students feel better. That leads us to wanting to make them happy. It turns out though, that what every human being needs is to be seen and heard – even when we are sad or angry. It is about being authentic, and meeting our students where they are, even when it isn’t where we wish they would be.
  • It’s about academic success. We want all our students to do well academically. However, positive childhood experiences don’t just come from getting the right answer or doing well on a test. Students who are able to actively engage in learning, make sense of new content, and find joy in the process of learning will have positive experiences at school.
  • It is about being popular. It is important for students to have connections with peers. It is not about the number of connections or being “liked” the most. The positive experience of being connected to a friend, having someone to play with and being part of a community build a strong foundation for a student to know they matter.

Tools for creating PCEs:

  • Be their mirror. Try to really see your students for who they are and what they do. Your grounded observation can help them see/believe for themselves. You can be the mirror for things you see that are positive or are areas to grow. “I notice you completed your math problems every day this week.” Or, “I notice you had a hard time focusing during independent reading time.” 
  • Find ways for each student to contribute. Having a job in the classroom is a great way to know that you matter and belong to the community. Invite your students to brainstorm a list of the ways that students can be helpful. Rotate jobs on a regular basis so students have a chance to try out a variety of ways to contribute. Learning new skills and making the community a better place is a positive experience that will impact the student’s future.
  • Get to know them, their families and their culture. Show a genuine interest in who your students are. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. Make connections between what they care about and do and yourself. Welcome their families into your space and create opportunities for children to share about what is important to them.
  • Set healthy boundaries and let students experience their feelings. It is important to have clear expectations and hold them for students. This should be done in a way that allows children to fix mistakes and learn. We can leave the shame, blame and pain off and focus on healing harm and building skills. It is ok for students to feel frustrated or disappointed. Supporting students so they can express those feelings in a way that is not hurtful can turn a stressful experience into a positive one.