Is the pandemic an 'Adverse Childhood Experience'?

Last month marked a grim, but historic milestone.

It’s been one year since the first novel coronavirus case was diagnosed in Memphis and a full year of profound adjustments, from mask-wearing and social distancing to working from home and virtual schooling.

There are certain childhood experiences that can shape a lifetime. When it’s an experience that creates extreme instability in a child’s world or their closest relationships—suffering abuse or neglect, the death or incarceration of a parent, homelessness, or witnessing domestic abuse or community violence, for example—they are called adverse childhood experiences or ACEs.

The question researchers will be asking for years is, “Is the pandemic an ACE?”

Since the pandemic hit, first-time jobless claims have repeatedly hit historic highsWomen—mothers and women of color in particular—make up the majority of those figures.

When parents experience more stress, they can struggle with sustaining healthy emotional connections to their children. Researcher are also examining how deeply the health, social, educational, and emotional impacts of these big changes like virtual school will shift the futures of children and families. 

Courtney Boykin holds a joint degree in law and public health and is a fellow for the Institute of Health, Law, and Policy or iHelp at the University of Memphis. She said researchers in the Mid-South and elsewhere are beginning to examine many of those questions around long-term effects and traumas.
Courtney Boykin, fellow for the Institute of Health, Law, and Policy (iHelp) at the University of Memphis. (Submitted)
The institute recruits the talents of law students and new attorneys to address real-world challenges of health policy, including food insecurity, childhood trauma prevention, and early education.

“With COVID, we had to change some priorities,” she says. “We have the opportunity to dig into some new areas related to Tennessee education: what some of our representatives are proposing and how those line up with what’s happening nationally.”

Since January, Tennessee lawmakers have passed a number of proposals related to learning loss and literacy, including mandatory summer programs for certain students and a measure to hold teachers harmless from negative consequences of student standardized test scores.

Boykin says that beyond the immediate impacts on education, policymakers and researchers should consider widening the lens for examining the disruptions the pandemic has caused families, especially when it comes to childhood trauma, early education, and parenting support.

“The pandemic exploded how we look at [adverse childhood experiences],” she says. “What we should look at though, are the [policies] we could have put in place that might have prevented such dire circumstances in the first place. With proactive measures, we might have helped mitigate some of the harm we’ve seen.”

More funding for childcare workers and other early childhood education supports might have helped keep more of our youngest learners connected to learning opportunities, Boykin offered.
“We don’t ever want to see any child regress in learning,” she added. “But it’s no secret that states that entered COVID with higher literacy levels and student achievement scores were probably able to regroup a bit faster than our communities here in Tennessee. We were already kind of limping along, then COVID happened. It’ll take some years before we’ll know its true impact.”

“At the same time,” she added, “The innovation we’ve seen from educators has been the brightest spot for policymakers to look toward for future understanding.”

Boykin cited the many ways that teachers have adapted to virtual learning scenarios—from creating unique instruments and tools to engage Zoom learners to hosting nightly storytime sessions via YouTube as a way to connect to young readers.

“Teachers have really turned into a new kind of superhero," she said.

Who Has Power and Voice? 
Programs that take a more inclusive approach to family support and center the life experiences and perspectives of the people most affected can offer important insights for researchers and policymakers. Especially those that incorporate the voices of people who have been historically disenfranchised or left behind in decision making.

Cathedral of Faith Community Partnership is headquartered in the Klondike and Smokey City neighborhoods of North Memphis and offers a variety of supports to families in need.

When a family begins working with the organization, they start by identify their own strengths.
Connie Booker, Cathedral of Faith's program director and collaborative lead. (Submitted)
“We make sure the family takes the lead,” says Connie Booker, Cathedral of Faith’s program director and collaborative lead. “You help them to identify their strengths and not just see the negatives. It can be as simple as remembering that Mom cooks dinner every night and brings everyone together at the table. Not all families do that, so we can lift that up as a place of strength they can take pride in.”

Starting this way, she says, builds the family up so that they can be active, engaged partners in defining what they need and how to reach their own list of goals.

And now, more than ever, families need that kind of agency over their futures, says Booker.

“The intensity around certain needs has skyrocketed since COVID. Utility bills and disconnections were scandalous—and we saw so many more people needing food. If one person in the home lost a job, it could put the whole family into a tailspin.”

Still, Booker says, her team saw many more families helping each other and referring neighbors in need for emergency assistance, which is also an area ripe for future study on ways to mitigate community trauma.

“Power and voice are usually the first things that people lose when they fall into poverty. We want to help them build that back up,” she says.
[This article is funded in part by ACE Awareness Foundation as part of a series on adverse childhood experiences in Memphis, including the people and organizations offering innovative solutions to protect and heal the city's youth.]
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Read more articles by Tiffany Thomas-Turner.