Author Archives: Barbara van der Meulen

ACEs in spades

ACEs in spades

T.S Eliot’s famous assertion that “April is the cruellest month” took on starker pertinence when I spent some of my time last month reading, watching and listening to items dedicated to childhood adversity – none of this, particularly, by design; all of it very much amplifying the growing evidence of the alarming and indelible mark childhood adversity leaves on adult lives and that we, educators, need to know about it and be able to adapt our practice.

Gail Honeyman’s ( novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine takes us to the damaged interior world of a 30-something, barely-functioning, care-experienced protagonist who manages her daily existence with the utmost care lest the threadbare façade of normality she’s painstakingly constructed become unravelled.

The language she uses is as impeccable as the world she has designed for herself and yet, despite the adversity, is humble, tender and unintentionally funny. The reader becomes gradually more aware of what major adverse event led to her being taken into care; about the persistent voice of ‘Mummy’ (chilling in her cruelty); about the loss of a younger child in this event; about how only because she’s buried this stuff away can she maintain a level of functionality. But we learn that the body doesn’t forget even though the mind tries to, and when she hits breaking point in a harrowing episode involving much vodka and vomit the extent of her pain becomes clear. It made me wonder about children who have ‘shut down’ and are burying their pain and how many of them might have been in my classroom, my care. And what might become of these children in later years.

What might become of them can be seen in Season 2 of the Dutch version of Dreamschool ( sadly without subtitles) which, this year, introduced us to 14 adversity-experienced ‘drop-outs’ who get 3 weeks of coaching and teaching to find the insight, motivation, interest and aspiration with which to enter their adulthoods, expertly guided by two highly capable and empathetic authorities in their respective fields and at least a dozen ‘celebrity’ teachers introducing their various professions by means of imaginatively-designed lessons.

The adolescent participants displayed so much of the behaviour we learn about from things like the Resilience film (see more below) that it almost seemed to me as if they were sequential: problems with impulse control; substance abuse and addiction; behaviour damaging relationships; physical ailments; avoidance tactics; verbal abuse; inability to take responsibility; lack of trust; unpredictable behaviour; compulsive disorders; lashing out; signs of acute mental health problems. We learn about some of the adversity they’ve experienced (or still are) and are reminded that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past”. Mainstream schooling failed each of these children because their needs were not known, not expressed, not acknowledged – and not met. None of these participants appeared beyond help or potential; all were (or emerged as) high-functioning in their own way; none came with a map beyond navigation – just defective inner compasses. How they were so utterly failed by ‘the system’ I don’t know but, judging by the responses on social media I hope programmes like these serve as a clarion call for the profession to become much more educated about trauma and adversity: to teach all teachers that there ain’t gonna be no learning if their pupils are living with chronic fear and distress.

Which leads us to the recent STEP conference (

with, among others, Dr Suzanne Zeedyk ( and Chris Kilkenny ( – the second time I’ve heard them both speak about their work and their respective crusades to make the teaching profession (and other public services) in Scotland much more informed about poverty and related Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). A year ago, Suzanne started a two-woman mission to bring the aforementioned documentary Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope ( to screens across Scotland and I’ve been lucky enough to see it twice.

The film and its message are compelling: childhood adversity affects our actual biology, our bodies and behaviour and – unless resolved, treated or mitigated – will affect the rest of an individual’s life outcomes in relation to: education, relationships, health, standards of living, and mortality. Nowadays Suzanne also tours with (The Real) David Cameron ( exhorting the professions to lead the change towards a more trauma-informed practice by putting the learning from the film into action in our respective professional settings. The Eleanor Oliphants and Dreamschool participants of the world are the embodiments of the science, and they are the people in your classrooms and communities. Many of them are silent and live with shame, guilt and fear: poverty-campaigner Chris Kilkenny teaches us about this, and about how little it would have taken for him to have felt less afraid, less hopeless and less lonely at school – or just had somebody to teach him how to use the washing machine. He works hard in schools to raise teachers’ and leaders’ awareness of what they can do to recognise those pupils struggling with a range of adverse events in their lives, such as poverty and neglect.

It’s been a long, cold winter in Scotland but the snowball that began last year is one that I hope will continue to reach into the Scottish Government’s conscience and policy discourse, as it has started to, to support a profession enriched by this learning and more able to nurture and improve the life chances of those with ACEs in spades.