Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Impact of Adverse Childhood ExperiencesThe more we understand the trauma that some children experience before and after they are in school, the better we are prepared to serve them and determine what supports they need so that they can thrive and succeed. Trauma informed/trauma sensitive schools and classrooms understand the social, emotional, and academic challenges children and young people who experience trauma may face and are prepared with both understanding and strategies so that those challenges do not become barriers to success. Much of the focus related to childhood trauma has been on urban settings, however.

Timing, as the saying goes, is everything. Take J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which describes his childhood growing up in an Appalachian family that grappled with abuse, drug addiction, and poverty. The book became a go-to read for political pundits, the news media, and others seeking to better understand white working class voters who no longer believed that the American dream was within their reach.

But relegating Hillbilly Elegy to the political science section of the bookstore or the library, however, does it a disservice. School counselors, teachers, and education leaders alike can benefit from reading Vance’s book as he touches on how his adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affected him long after he left Appalachia, became a Marine, attended college, and graduated from Yale law school.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), defines ACEs as “stressful or traumatic events,” that children experience, such as physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse; emotional or physical neglect; residing with a parent who is being abused, has mental illness, and/or experiences substance abuse; living through a parental separation or divorce; or having a member of the household incarcerated.

While ACEs happen to children living in every socioeconomic segment of our society, Vance points to research which states that they are far more prevalent in working class families. He cites a report by the Wisconsin Children’s Trust fund which found that 40 percent of children from working class families experienced multiple ACEs, compared to the 29 percent of their peers with a college degree.

Vance definitely did a lot of homework when writing about ACEs, citing Harvard research documenting how ACEs have been linked to chemical changes in a child’s brain; that children who experience them live in a constant state of “fight or flight” even when there is no conflict; and that American working class families experience a level of relationship instability not found elsewhere across the world.

“Chaos begets chaos,” Vance writes. “Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.”

Writing in great detail about his ACEs must have been hard for Vance, especially given that he was raised to not talk about “stuff like this” outside his immediate family. But we can be grateful that he chose to do so. Books such as Hillbilly Elegy that rise to the top of bestseller lists, are frequently cited and discussed in the news, and get Americans talking about societal problems that are often hidden in plain sight, provide all of us much-needed opportunities to examine the policies and practices driving our education system and how we best serve those vulnerable children who need our schools to be their safe and supportive haven for learning and achieving to their highest levels.


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