Adverse childhood experiences: Building on the strength within

Much work with disadvantaged young people focuses on fixing problems but research suggests a strengths-based approach can be harnessed to great effect. Charlotte Goddard investigates.

Most interventions for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds aim to repair the damage caused by their high-stress upbringing. But for one group of researchers, the assumption that at-risk children are broken and need to be fixed is just one side of the coin. As well as asking what is wrong with these young people, we also need to ask what's right with them, says Willem Frankenhuis, associate professor of developmental psychology at Radboud University in The Netherlands.

Practitioners and researchers can use this information to design interventions that harness and develop these young people's hidden talents. "We try to reshape the child to fit the context, but we need to be looking at how we can change the context to fit the strengths of the child," he says. "This means we have to know more about what their strengths might be."

Of course, nobody wants children to grow up in a harsh environment. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as neglect and abuse have been shown to have a significant and far-reaching negative impact. Policymakers and professionals working with children and young people are rightly working to prevent ACEs in the first place and to reduce negative impacts where they do occur. The Scottish government, for example, is co-ordinating an ACEs hub. Its goals include reducing the negative impacts of ACEs and developing a workforce and services which are informed about adversity and trauma.

"Many practitioners and educational scientists are interested in understanding what it is about a child's home environment or their psychology that is holding them back - for example maybe they are hungry, so they can't concentrate at school," explains Frankenhuis. "However, while this is a hugely important part of working with disadvantaged young people, I felt there was an exclusive focus on this fixing of children, rather than having the mechanisms in place to leverage their strengths."

The concept of resilience is currently a hot topic, with policymakers, practitioners and researchers alike keen to discover what qualities allow some children from disadvantaged backgrounds to thrive where others do not, and how others can be encouraged to develop these resilient factors. The "hidden talents" approach is not quite the same, explains Frankenhuis, although there are some similarities. "Other strength-based approaches might focus on resilience factors - for example when children beat the odds they often have a large social network or positive role models," he says. "That is looking at what is right rather than what is wrong in the child's environment, but our approach is focusing more on cognitive and social skills. I wouldn't call having a large social network a hidden talent, but if a child has developed social skills that allows them to build a large social network, then they have used a hidden talent to build something to get themselves out of their situation."

Strengths and deficits

Understanding strengths as well as deficits means children are less likely to feel stigmatised when targeted by interventions. Such interventions might be more likely to succeed, because they use the things children and young people are good at as building blocks to develop new skills and talents.

Frankenhuis is co-director of the Hidden Talents Lab, a group of researchers based in the US, directed by professor of psychology and anthropology Bruce Ellis, who are investigating the ways in which children fine-tune their abilities to match the world they grow up in, developing strategies that help them navigate their stressful environment. A common view in psychology is that early adversity impairs cognition, because children from stressful backgrounds, such as violent households, tend to score lower on standard tests of intelligence, language, memory, inhibition, and other abilities. However, some recent studies suggest these people may exhibit better learning and memory when engaged in tasks which are relevant to them (see research box). "One day a child might be with their uncle, the next with their parents, the next they could be homeless," says Frankenhuis. "They could develop skills related to shifting between tasks and quickly updating information."

Other potential "hidden talents" could be related to empathy, creativity and entrepreneurship. While researchers are trying to measure these talents in the lab, youth workers, social workers and others come across them every day in their work. "Most of the young people we work with develop skills through pursuit of their own survival," says Josh Babarinde, founder of London-based social enterprise CrackedIt. "A number of young people have experienced trauma in their childhood, and have been compelled to find strategies to cope. Some become very independent as a result, because they can't rely on anyone in the household to look after&them."

CrackedIt teaches young people how to repair mobile phone screens while providing support with employment skills and pastoral needs. In doing so, it harnesses a number of skills young people have already developed. For example, many of the young men Babarinde works with have taken on childcare responsibilities at a very young age. "As a result they develop a strong sense of empathy and compassion," he explains.

The team has found many young people involved in gangs are very entrepreneurial, continues Babarinde. "They are having to identify clients for goods and services quickly, they have to learn how to move money around and manage it, they have to manage a client base," he says. "They have a lot of different skills that we don't recognise as a society, or are not able to harness enough."

California State University's Paula Thomson researches the impact of ACEs on creativity (see research, below), and has found those who suffered more adversity have significantly stronger creative experiences. Thomson's research shows children from traumatic backgrounds can find a refuge in performing arts or sports training. However, the training process can also replicate the trauma they are seeking to escape. "A coach that is punitive can replicate a home that is violent and chaotic," she says. Environments that focus on intense evaluation and criticism may cause children to withdraw from challenging tasks or become hyper-vigilant to potential threats, preventing them from making the most of their talent. Thomson suggests training programmes should help children to break down their goals into smaller steps.

School systems are often developed around skills that are more present in children from stable backgrounds who can sit behind desks and work from a book solving maths problems. "What you are doing now may not show results until later, in an exam, and eventually helping you to get a better job," says Frankenhuis. "That is not optimally designed for kids growing up in an unpredictable world. They are not motivated by something that will pay off so far in the future."

According to Babarinde from CrackedIt, "too many young people are excluded from mainstream education because they are not engaging with academic life". "But put them in a setting like ours or expose them to particular trades or non-academic skills, and they take to it like a duck to water," he says. CrackedIt provides a space for young people adapted to their skills and requirements, enabling them to learn about the norms and customs of employment. "It serves as a lab where you can make mistakes and learn from them," explains Babarinde.

Frankenhuis suggests young people could be taught to develop mental skills by using examples and contexts which they find relevant and motivating. Once they have mastered these skills they can start to generalise them to other contexts. Dynamic touch screens could be more effective than books in terms of delivering information. Providing opportunities to move around a classroom and work in groups to solve problems can also help. "Education can be experiential," says Andy Lovatt, co-director of Digital Advantage, a scheme designed to harness the skills of disadvantaged young people (see case study, below). "If you keep hitting kids with a hammer and telling them they are a failure then they will be a failure. Use another tool and you get a different outcome."

Assessment toolkit

Ultimately, Frankenhuis hopes to develop an assessment toolkit for practitioners to identify the hidden talents of the young people they work with, and then design interventions for them based on those skills. It is common practice when working with disadvantaged young people to collect data on the things that are wrong in their lives at the start of a project, both in order to tailor the project to the needs of the young people and to show the impact the programme has had over time. "Almost all existing tools are aimed at collecting deficit data," says Colin Falconer, founder of asset-based agency InspireChilli. Joel Lewis, network director at the Foyer Federation, agrees. "It is common practice in our sector to ask young people to score themselves on all these things that are going wrong in their life," he says.

Some organisations, such as the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, are looking at ways of measuring young people's assets. The foundation's Youth Fund supports organisations that work with young people experiencing disadvantage in a way that recognises and builds on their strengths and potential. The Foyer Federation also takes an assets-based "advantaged thinking" approach. "It is embedded in our DNA as an organisation, and most of what we do comes from that philosophy," says Lewis. Rather than focusing on the language of needs and deficits, this approach requires practitioners to focus on young people's assets, uncovering their talents, nurturing, and progressing them further. "We talk about flipping the narrative" says Lewis. "Re-labelling what we perceive as negative traits as positive ones."

Leveraging strengths born of adversity must go alongside supporting children to develop skills that their upbringing has not fostered - and we should continue to fight to prevent ACEs in the first place. While evidence of particular "hidden talents" is growing, practitioners should be careful not to assume all young people with a particular background will have developed particular skills. Evidence is crucial, says Frankenhuis. "I understand that it is an attractive idea to focus on the positives but I don't want people to be seduced by this idea and become less careful of the evidence," he says.

Colin Falconer also urges caution. "We don't want to turn young people's disadvantaged backgrounds into something good to have, like the Pulp song Common People," he says. "But we do want young people to be able to take control of their story, and see themselves as someone with potential and ability."


Untapped maths skills discovered in young market traders

The study: The Untapped Math Skills of Working Children in India: Evidence, Possible Explanations and Implications, Abhijit Banerjee and others, working paper, 2017

What was done: Researchers from India and the US assessed the mathematical skills of under-16s working in informal markets in Kolkata, West Bengal. Around 200 children were included in the study. Mystery shoppers first assessed children's ability to calculate the cost of the goods they sold accurately and give the correct change. Children were then asked to do some other written or mental arithmetic calculations.

Findings: The research team found 90 per cent of the children got the calculations for market stall transactions right on their first attempt. Many could also solve problems relating to hypothetical transactions involving goods they did sell. However, they struggled with similar arithmetic problems as typically presented in school. The results suggest these children have skills that are untapped by the school system.

Growing up in harsh conditions may boost problem-solving skills

The study: Hidden Talents in Harsh Conditions? A Pre-registered Study of Memory and Reasoning about Social Dominance, Willem Frankenhuis and others, Developmental Science, April 2019

What was done: Frankenhuis and colleagues from the US and UK set out to examine whether childhood and current exposure to violence were linked to memory and reasoning skills in certain situations. They tested nearly 200 study participants - 100 Dutch college students and 99 adults from the local community, including those living in disadvantaged conditions.

Findings: The researchers found individuals with more violent lives were better at remembering relationships based on social dominance - such as who might win a fight. This suggests people living under harsh conditions may be able to hold their own, or even excel, when solving problems in which the content is relevant to their lives. The team concluded their findings provided some evidence of "hidden talents" linked to adversity.

Adverse experiences in childhood linked to enhanced creativity

The study: Childhood Adversity and the Creative Experience in Adult Professional Performing Artists, Paula Thomson and Victoria Jacque, Frontiers in Psychology, February 2018

What was done: The researchers from California State University and York University in Toronto, Canada examined the experiences of 234 professional performers, including dancers, singers, actors, directors and musicians. Participants were asked to complete a range of questionnaires covering adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), creative experiences and other personal traits and experiences such as trauma in adulthood.

Findings: The study found performers with four or more ACEs were more prone to anxiety and shame but also had significantly stronger creative experiences, appeared to be more aware of the creative process and were more deeply absorbed in it than peers with no or fewer ACEs.

Sefton programme harnesses creativity of at-risk teenagers

Sefton Borough Council worked with community interest company Digital Advantage on a project targeting teenagers aged 15 to 18, who were at risk of offending or school non-attendance. The 12 young people took part in 10 weeks of intensive, structured work experience within a "pop-up" digital&agency, complete with agency boss, live creative briefs, script-writing and film-making.&They were supported to brainstorm business ideas, and developed a plan for a mobile car wash app, conducting a customer survey and making a film.

Young people were referred to the programme because they were experiencing some kind of difficulty in their lives, explains Leeann Doolin, senior early help worker at Sefton Borough Council's targeted youth prevention team. "There were gang-related issues, drugs-related issues, and mental health-related issues, but our students made a pact to get through the week and everyone did," adds Andy Lovatt, co-director of Digital Advantage. Nine participants were in alternative curriculum or pupil referral unit settings, while two were not in education, employment or training. Nine were referred through the youth offending team and one by social care.

Sefton was looking for a programme that would harness the strengths of the group. "These young people have lots of experience around the digital world," says Doolin. "This was an opportunity to harness their creativity in a more constructive way."

Within four weeks of completing the programme, six of the 12 young people had been signed off by social services. Two gained work placements with another business, one is now in full-time employment and the others have returned to full-time education with notably improved attendance.

Doolin believes the success of the project lies in the fact it was co-delivered, with Digital Advantage playing to the young people's strengths while her team addressed the barriers that might have prevented them from accessing the project. "We gave them wake-up calls and provided taxis to get to and from the project because at that point their confidence was quite low," she says.

Conor Donelly and Ammar Davis, both 18, took part in the Digital Advantage scheme. "Conor was suffering from low-level mental health issues and family breakdown, his attainment was low," says Doolin. "Ammar was struggling with anger, and because of that with attainment in the educational environment."

According to Conor, Digital Advantage gave him something to focus on. "Right from the get-go I walked into a room of people who were friendly, and easy to talk to," he says. Where school saw him as a problem, Digital Advantage helped him develop his skills. "I like being challenged, I&would not have liked to walk in there and have it be a walk in the park," says Conor. "My experience of school is it is like a factory, to teach you how to fall in line with the sheep."

Before the course Ammar had already set up his own digital business - Pink Pixl - but was battling with stress. "I like the creativity and meeting everyone else from different backgrounds," he says. "I wasn't that sociable and it got me speaking to loads of people. It wasn't like being taught, everyone was having fun."

Since the course Conor has been studying creative media while marketing himself as a musician, and plans to set up his own events business. Ammar is studying business with economics at university, and worked as a digital marketing assistant over the summer.

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