Adverse Childhood Experiences

The future prosperity of any society depends on its ability to foster the health and well-being of the next generation. The early years of life matter because the basic architecture of the human brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Early experiences literally shape how the brain gets built, establishing either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the development and behavior that follows.

As the latest brain science shows, chronic trauma—what experts call “adverse childhood experiences,” or “ACEs”—can disrupt this brain-building process. Like building a house in a storm or with below-grade materials and tools, ACEs are toxic to brain development and can compromise the brain’s structural integrity. Left unaddressed, ACEs and their effects make it more difficult for a child to succeed in school, live a healthy life, and contribute to the state’s future prosperity—our communities, our workforce, and our civic life. At present, public policy and practice lag behind the brain science. That is why Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Former First Lady Crissy Haslam, Deputy Gov. Jim Henry, and the ACE Awareness Foundation in Memphis launched the Tennessee ACEs Initiative in November 2015.

What we strive to accomplish: The Building Strong Brains: Tennessee ACEs Initiative has set the bar high. Over the next three years this initiative, working under the auspices of the Three Branches Institute and guided by an ACE coordinating team will strive to:

  • Establish Tennessee as a national model for how a state can promote culture change in early childhood based on a philosophy that a focus on ACEs and how to prevent and mitigate their impact is the most promising approach to helping Tennessee children lead productive, healthy lives and ensure the future prosperity of the state. 
  • Encourage government and private organizations to revise their policies and create innovative practices focused on ways to strengthen the social and emotional health of families, reduce the impact of toxic stress on young children, and take steps to ensure Tennessee children have safe, stable, nurturing environments. In short, we need to move away from after-the-fact interventions that do not consider the social contexts affecting people’s outcomes and move toward effective service-delivery approaches that do. The culture must shift from “what is wrong with you” to “what happened to you?” 
  • Enhance Tennesseans’ knowledge about the latest brain science related to childhood adversity so people across the state can talk with authority and accuracy about ACEs and toxic stress and understand the need to address these issues to improve outcomes. 
  • Embed sufficient political, governmental, philanthropic and private support for this culture change effort so state agencies, local communities and those concerned about future generations of Tennesseans will have the resources needed in the years ahead to continue to build on this ACE prevention/mitigation approach. 
  • Enable innovation in both the public and private realms to help communities develop ACEprevention/mitigation plans that both strengthen the core capabilities of children, parents/caregivers, and neighborhoods and also successfully address the impacts of violent, threatening, or unpredictable environments. 
  • Effect positive changes more quickly by encouraging state agencies, health care organizations, social service programs and other partners to work collaboratively on research and development of projects and approaches that mitigate ACEs/toxic stress and build resilience and hope into the lives of future generations. 

A final word: The importance of making this pivot from after-the-fact treatment toward early ACE intervention/prevention is difficult to overstate. The journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics puts it this way:

Advances in the study of toxic stress represent a paradigm shift in our understanding of health across the human lifespan. Although debates about early childhood policy today focus almost entirely on education objectives, science now indicates that sound investment in interventions that reduce toxic stress and childhood adversity are likely to strengthen the foundation of physical and mental health and generate even larger returns for all of society