SANDY — No one is asking Utah schoolteachers to act as therapists.
Nor would state law allow educators to ask young students about adverse childhood experiences such as divorce, witnessing domestic violence or experiencing abuse.
But a University of Utah faculty member who addressed educators attending the Utah Education Association convention Friday urged them to learn how "toxic stress" affects children and to strive to be a trusted adult who can help buffer their students from the effects of adverse experiences.
Alisa Van Langeveld, who teaches in the U.'s Department of Family and Consumer Studies, encouraged educators to personally validate each of their students daily to let them know they have a trusted adult in their life — other than a parent — who cares for them.
"You can do that by making eye contact with them. A key point to do that is during transitions, as they come in the morning, as they leave in the afternoon, the transition for recess or lunch. If you stand at the door, as those children come in and you give them a high-five, you look them in the eye and say, 'I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you're here,'" Van Langeveld said.
One audience member shared that she had multiple adverse childhood experiences despite growing up in a household where her father was a counselor in his LDS Church bishopric.
"This would never happen in a family like that, right?" she said.
"I have to tell you, the thing that got me through elementary school was teachers who loved me. They accepted me for me, and they loved me. If you can't do anything else (as educators), that's huge," she said.
A growing body of medical science links many health issues — such as cancer, coronary artery disease and diabetes — to experiencing multiple adverse factors during childhood. Such experiences are also connected to higher rates of behavioral issues and low educational achievement.
"Those are the children we are asking to be resilient," Van Langeveld said.
Children who experience abuse, have a parent who has been incarcerated, or whose parents have divorced, among other adverse childhood experiences, may avoid interaction with adults or peers. Others might cope by being clingy and demanding attention.
"This child feels the world isn't a safe place. I can be the person to remind them it is," Van Langeveld said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being.1 comment on this story
The study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997 with two waves of data collection. More than 17,000 Southern Californians who were members of the health maintenance organization underwent physical exams and completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences, and current health status and behaviors.
UEA President Heidi Matthews encouraged educators to learn more about adverse childhood experiences and how they may have impacted their lives.
Self care, she said, is highly important for educators who are teachers but also nurturers.
"One of the most important things we can do as educators right now is (tend to) ourselves — assessing ourselves and becoming aware of that so we can be that person who can be there for our students," Matthews said.