Memphis author, expert says definition of adverse childhood experiences falls short in urban areas

Dr. Marcus Matthews' newest book is part how-to guide and part memoir.

For ten chapters, the Memphis native weaves his personal experiences of childhood trauma with advice for educators to help students who are coping with adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, in urban environments.

"Urban ACEs: How to Reach and Teach Students Traumatized by Adverse Childhood Experiences," published in December 2019.

He opens the book by saying he loves his mother, father, and three brothers but “domestic violence, parental separation, parental incarceration, parental substance abuse,” his older brother’s death, and mental illness in his home “disrupted” his childhood. These were his ACEs.
Dr. Marcus Matthews' latest book (pictured) was released in December 2019. (Submitted)
Matthews has a doctorate in higher and adult education and a master’s in teaching, instruction, and curriculum leadership.

He was introduced to ACEs research around 2016 while working with the Achievement School District. From 2018-2019, he served as dean of students for Shelby County Schools. He is also a behavioral specialist and is trained in trauma-informed teaching, Kingian nonviolence conflict resolution, and restorative justice.

The first ACE study established three trauma categories: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Matthews reasons that economic disadvantage, systemic racism, and poor educational environments should be included as ACEs.

In each chapter of the book, he offers advice for addressing urban ACEs and relays a moment in his life where he or an influential adult applied the advice he offers today.

Dr. Matthews sat down with High Ground to talk about his experiences, expertise, and expanding the definition of ACEs.


HG: You describe ACEs as traumatic experiences before age 18, which is a much broader definition than the one established in the original study. Why did you define ACEs this way?
MM: Trauma is subjective. There are forms that were not encompassed in the definitions given in the original study. I think the original study forms an awesome background and great foundation for discussion about ACEs, but I see the scope as much larger than those specific traumas highlighted in the original study.

HG: What are urban ACEs?
MM: When we look at the situation in urban environments, it would not be fair to say economic disadvantage and systemic racism are not traumatizing. For instance, we know that school suspensions are disproportionate for African American boys. That is systemic racism. When African American boys exhibit the same behavior as white boys or girls but receive a harsher consequence or punishment than their peers, that’s racism. There is no other way to define it.

… and as far as economic disadvantage—that shows in the data as well because we know that students with access to greater technology, more qualified teachers, etc. perform higher academically.

HG: Why is forgiveness important to overcoming ACEs?
MM: You cannot move forward if your foot is on somebody’s neck. You cannot receive anything if your hands are full. A lot of times, we hold onto anger, pain, and guilt, and that stops us from moving forward emotionally.

In part two of this story, Matthews discusses socio emotional learning (SEL) and how teachers can drop their “personal mirrors” when dealing with students experiencing trauma.

HG: In your book you mention that members of your family practice a religion that you do not. It was the base of some of your mom’s decisions for who you could hang out with and what you could or couldn't do. Does conflict between a parent and child's beliefs—religious, political, or otherwise—contribute to ACEs? How do you help children with that situation?
MM: In an ideal situation, we would respect the fact that others have different beliefs, and we would not allow that to hinder our personal relationships.

Many times, children’s point of view and belief system is minimalized and criticized and again, that is traumatic because our parents are supposed to be our support system.

To the children I would encourage them to embrace the idea that their parents or the adults in their lives are doing the best that they know, and they are doing what they think is appropriate. Sometimes it is up to the child to be the bigger person.

Of course, there is a difference between being the bigger person when your safety is violated and being the bigger person when there is a conceptual difference. We are not encouraging a child to withstand abuse, but when there is a difference of opinion and an issue with belief systems, both parties are responsible for respecting the beliefs of the other party.

HG: It seems like there were many players in the healing of your ACEs—mentors, teachers, family, and friends—but did you ever seek professional help to help you address your traumas? Why or why not?
MM: I visited a psychiatrist as an adult. It was refreshing to be able to talk to someone who did not have any skin in the game. I would recommend that young people and adults who have been traumatized and are still looking to gain balance, seek professional support. My writing has been huge for me ...I did not realize how powerful that was and how much that helped me maintain a level of sanity. We must move away from not addressing our issues.

[Read part two of this interview with Dr. Marcus Matthews here.]
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[This article is funded in part by ACE Awareness Foundation as part of a year-long series on adverse childhood experiences in Memphis, including the people and organizations offering innovative solutions to protect and heal the city's youth.]

Read more articles by Erica Horton.

Born and raised in Memphis, Erica Horton is a freelance journalist that loves to learn and write about almost anything. Email her story ideas here
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