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Creating Resilience: Raising awareness about adverse childhood experiences

Drew Butler
The Daily Ardmoreite
Cheryl Step with Creating Resilience, LLC explains brain development in children with a high ACE Score during a panel discussion on Monday. Because of traumatic experiences their prefrontal cortex has not developed to the extent that it should be.

Over the weekend the Ardmore Behavioral Health Collaborative partnered with Ardmore Literacy Leadership and the Potts Family Foundation to broadcast a virtual screening of the 2016 documentary “Resilience.” The film discusses the impact that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have on the rest of a person’s life as well as ways with mitigating their impact in the future. The film was available to screen online all weekend, and on Monday afternoon an online panel discussion with local experts on ACES took place.

Cheryl Step of Creating Resilience, LLC was one of the first speakers and she described how the brains of children with multiple ACEs are not as developed as those without them.

“When children are experiencing traumatic events daily or weekly, what happens is the alarm system within us get’s stuck on on,” Step said.

She said the brain is often divided into three pieces. The first part of the brain is the brain stem which is developed while we are still fetuses and it controls basic systems such as the heart beat and blinking. It also sends out the cortisol and adrenaline that is released when we experience the feeling of danger.

Step said the middle part of the brain houses the limbic system along with emotions both positive and negative. It also houses memory and the amygdala.

“I call the amygdala our watch tower and what it is constantly doing is searching the environment we’re in and linking it to emotions and linking it to memories and senses,” Step said. “As soon as it detects something that it senses as a danger — whether it is in actuality a danger or not — it sends that signal down to the survival brain, and that goes out as fight, flight or freeze.”

She pointed out that this is an important survival mechanism when there is a true danger, however when children are consistently put into a fight, flight or freeze response, this can lead to the third part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex or the thinking brain dot developing properly.

“That’s where your inhibitory control is — your ability to control your movements and what you say and do,” Step said. “What they’ve found in children who have experienced a lot of trauma is that the neural connections in that part of the brain are not as strong as in those children who have not experienced a lot of trauma.”

She said this lack of development can lead to children who cannot sit still in class or think about and plan their actions. She said the best way to help children make these neural connections is through a process called regulation.

“As adults we have to know how to regulate,” Step said. “If you’re in the fear state, that means regulating your breathing somehow.”

She said this can be achieved through breathing exercises or even taking a drink of water.

“That gets us into our midbrain,” Step said. “That allows us as adults in the room with children to be able to stay in the thinking part of the brain. We want to be the calm when there’s chaos going on all around us. It’s important for us to know as adults how to be able to use regulation. You have to know how to do it and do it with the people you are teaching about regulation before you can expect them to do it.”