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Lasting Impact of Childhood Experiences

One of the foundational strategies used by Youth Transforming Justice (YTJ) to serve our youth clients is a focus on trauma-informed approaches to discipline. In our YTJ Peer Solutions teen diversion program, this involves addressing an incident, not from a crime-matches-punishment lens but instead trying to decipher what led this individual to make the poor decision in the first place. Why is this important? Having a more holistic understanding of our respondents’ circumstances allows our peer advocates to contextualize this behavior, giving them the ability to formulate a more appropriate and effective restorative plan for the individual.  This helps them take accountability, learn how to repair damage to relationships, and increases the chances that the behavior will not be repeated. 

Traumatic childhood experiences are referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs.  ACEs is an umbrella term for a large variety of traumas and adversity that one can experience in childhood. Experiencing or witnessing things such as violence, drug abuse, or mental health problems can have a lifetime effect on an adolescent with a still-developing brain. The CDC reported their findings in a study on ACEs that nearly 1 in 6 young people had experienced four or more types of ACEs. In addition, women and racial minorities appear to be at greater risk of having four or more types of ACEs. Environmental factors such as poverty and systemic racism can also have an impact on youth. Experiencing such adversity at a young age can have many psychological and physical challenges that can influence behavior. 

One of the most common and detrimental results of ACEs is something called toxic stress. ACEs Aware characterizes it as long-term stress in response to adversity with inadequate support from adults. This neglect of support is what distinguishes toxic stress from tolerable stress, potentially leading to biologically embedded trauma responses. Those who experience ACEs often have overdeveloped amygdalas, the portion of the brain responsible for regulating responses of fight and flight in stressful situations. This overdevelopment can be a major contributor to behavioral and learning issues from a young age. ACEs also make individuals more susceptible to engaging in high-risk behaviors or substance abuse. All of these factors combined can make students with pre-existing trauma the targeted demographic for school officials and law enforcement.

Most preventative measures of addressing ACEs require changes on a legislative level such as increased accessibility to quality childcare and ensuring financial security for families. For that reason, responding to incidents in a trauma-informed way is most appropriate for the majority. Implementing trauma-informed care in a school setting consists of multiple components. First is having a general understanding of the prevalence of ACEs and how they can impact someone’s behavior. Recognizing the effects of trauma and adversity is essential for ensuring that the proper repercussions are given; this is why proper training of leadership on how to interact with individuals in a trauma-informed way is the next step of implementation. School officials can support their teachers and staff in this transition by enacting trauma-informed policies, procedures, and practices. This is all to reduce the likelihood of recidivism or re-traumatization.

Understanding ACEs is essential to the understanding of restorative justice. We must look at students as whole individuals rather than exclusively focusing on their behavioral issues. Implementing trauma-informed care has been linked to better school performance, higher graduation rates, lower substance use, and fewer behavioral or violence problems in schools. Tailoring solutions specifically to the needs of the student rather than blindly applying punitive punishment has shown consistently to have better outcomes. Youth Transforming Justice has been working with schools to address discipline and behavioral issues with a trauma-informed lens for over a decade. As a result, many local schools have implemented restorative and trauma-informed approaches to discipline, including referrals to YTJ’s Peer Solutions program.

At the beginning of every YTJ Peer Solutions case, our program director Don Carney speaks to all volunteers and viewers about a variety of subjects. Advice is given to Peer Team participants on what type of questions they might want to ask to get a more holistic understanding of the respondent beyond the incident that brought them there. With questions about their home life, mental health, and social life, the Peer Team can often begin to figure out what potentially had led them to make that decision and provide appropriate resources to support those areas.

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