Creating Positive Childhood Experiences (the what, the why, and the how)

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are in conversations about mental health and wellbeing, from individuals talking about their own development to professionals talking about the impact of their work. There are three general categories of ACEs are: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. The original study on ACEs is from 1997 and has huge cultural impact since then. (The CDC’s website on ACES is here and you can calculate your score here.)

In 2019, a new kind of conversation got started about positive childhood experiences (PCEs). This conversation refocused the ACEs research to the elements of childhood that are protective and supportive of mental health. The seven PCEs are:

  1. Able to talk with my family about my feelings.
  2. Felt that my family stood by me during difficult times.
  3. Enjoyed participating in community traditions.
  4. Felt a sense of belonging in high school.
  5. Felt supported by friends.
  6. Had at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in me.
  7. Felt safe and protected by an adult in my home.

While ACEs pull kids (and adults) down, PCEs boost them up. PCEs are direct counterpoints to ACEs. They are protective factors against the things that have long term, negative impacts on children. They provide support and connecting features in children’s lives that last far beyond childhood.

Which leads me to my question: How do we, as sexuality educators, fit into this PCE world? How do we provide children with positive experiences?

Number 6 is a direct entry point into that conversation. Can we take genuine interest in our students and participants? How do we let those young people know that we care? But numbers 3, 4, and to some extent 5 also fall under our purview of opportunity. Here are things that come to mind:

  1. Ask kids how their days are. Follow up about specifics, both positive and negative, a few days later.
  2. Go to extra credit events that you know kids are participating in. Wave to them. Follow up with specific comments about the event the next day.
  3. Watch for kids who aren’t participating in any extra curricular or after school activities. Find ways to connect them with – or help them create – activities that are interesting to them. Follow up with them about their participation.
  4. When a kid says something meaningful in class, follow up with them a few days later. Share that you’re still thinking about what they said.

The thing that sticks out to me among all of these ideas, and other ones that are brilliant and useful, is following up with the young person. This is the part that indicates genuine interest. This capacity to circle back and let the kid know that they remain in your mind even when they are not present is what ultimately makes that connection, that genuine interest.

As sexuality educators, we are uniquely positioned to show genuine interest. Because our class content is so personal in nature, we are more likely to hear from students when they are struggling. We have the flexibility to ask about topics that many teachers don’t. We have resources and information for students who are struggling. We are more attuned to the emotional waves in the groups where we work when compared to most other kinds of teachers.

As sexuality educators, we are uniquely positioned to support young people in experiencing PCEs. It is, in fact, hard baked into our general mission of providing high quality sexuality education.