Is Covid-19 an Adverse Childhood Experience?

March 2021 marks a year since the first UK-wide lockdown. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought many challenges to teachers and parents alike, negatively affecting the mental health of children and adults everywhere. We expect issues associated with the pandemic to continue worldwide for many months if not years to come. 

At the start of the year, we created a series of wellbeing webinars to help provide practical insights and knowledge to help you support your students. The webinars, which are available to watch again here, are beneficial to all teaching staff as well as safeguarding leads. 

In this blog, we will look at ACEs, practical approaches and how children and young people can be best supported to resume normal life, or the 'new normal', over the coming months and years.

What is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs)

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events, particularly those in early childhood that significantly affect the health and wellbeing of people in the UK and the world.

ACEs have been strongly related to the development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems throughout a person’s lifespan, including those associated with substance misuse.

Forms of ACEs include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Mother/Father treated violently
  • Substance misuse within a household
  • Household mental illness
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Incarcerated household member

Domestic Abuse during Covid-19

Some startling statistics regarding the increase of domestic abuse during the pandemic have emerged with the UN describing the increase as a "shadow pandemic" alongside Covid-19. It is estimated that domestic abuse cases have increased by 20% during the lockdown. The police recorded 206,492 cases of domestic abuse-related violence in the UK between March and June 2020, this is a 9% increase compared with the same period in 2019. The increase is thought to be due to many people being trapped inside their homes during lockdowns with their abuser, the victims include many children.

It is important to note that a significant proportion of the global population is digitally excluded because they lack internet access. It is estimated that over 40% of the people in the world do not have access to the Internet.

Other sobering statistics to emerge include the UN estimating 2.2 million people will be unemployed at the end of the year which equates to a staggering 6.5% of all workers. This will result in almost 700,000 individuals being driven into poverty by the Covid-19 crisis in the UK, creating additional stress on families and children.

“The pandemic and global recession may cause over 1.4% of the world’s population to fall into extreme poverty,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass



The Immediate Impact of ACEs on Children

Domestic violence witnessed by children will negatively impact how they perform in school. ACES are forms of stress and affect the developing brain, this, in turn, can create Toxic Stress, expending prolonged periods of stress which can change brain development and affects how the body responds to stress.

Impact of ACEs on School Performance

  • Learning problems
  • Stress hormones
  • Challenges forming relationships/friendships
  • A decreased ability to persevere
  • Childhood Obesity
  • Early age at first intercourse
  • Teen Pregnancy
  • Bullying/Disruptive
  • Dating Violence
  • Fighting and carrying weapons to school
  • Early initiation of tobacco, drug or alcohol use
  • Self-mutilation and even suicide

When a person experiences multiple ACEs the body will trigger the survival response diminishing the ability to use adaptive strategies. This means the child or young person will not be able to deal with issues that arise or adapt as quickly to change as they could have before.

This can present in several ways. In the classroom, it could look like clingy behaviour or manifest as the child appearing passive and withdrawn. Children could experience regressions in their behaviour such as bedwetting, baby talk and food insecurities, overall making the child inaccessible to learning – impacting their academic development. This has a run-on effect into the development of their social and emotional skills and abilities to form relationships leading to a distrust of the world and other people.

The Long-Term Impact of ACEs on Child/Adolescent Development

Experiencing ACEs will alter how a child’s brain develops meaning they can find decision making difficult and they are more likely to participate in risk-taking behaviors later in life.  

Those with 4 or more ACEs are more likely to:

  • Have been in prison
  • Develop heart disease
  • Frequently visit the GP
  • Develop type 2 diabetes
  • Have committed violence in the last 12 months
  • Have health-harming behaviours (high-risk drinking, smoking, drug use)

Children who experience adversity can grow into adolescents and adults living with the social, emotional and health consequences of trauma. Disruptions to the development of social and emotional skills and relationships can continue throughout someone’s life, and ultimately lead to enduring isolation and distrust of the world. This can lead to continued adversity, for example, remaining in or seeking out abusive relationships, and having deeply negative ideas about who they are, and how they treat other people. 

International research and studies from across the UK show there is a strong relationship between experiencing adversity and trauma in childhood, and poor social and health outcomes in adolescence, adulthood, and later life. Adults who experience multiples ACEs as children can project that learned behaviour onto their own children where it will continue to be passed down through generations.

This is the important link that is vital for educators to understand and try to intervene early in the development of at-risk children and young people.



The Impact of Covid-19

The experiences children and young people are having in the midst of this worldwide pandemic could potentially lead to the same outcomes as traditional ACEs. The Covid-19 pandemic has been probably one of the biggest stress-provoking periods in our lifetime and we should expect there to be more adversity that children are experiencing.

It is important to note that every child will react differently, some children may return to school after lockdown and have not suffered but others may suffer acutely. It all depends on their experiences during the pandemic and resulting lockdowns.

Covid-19 has created or intensified many adverse experiences for children and could have short and/or long-term impacts on a range of health and life outcomes. Communicable disease outbreaks such as covid, natural disasters and childhood adversity impact both physical and mental health, including increased risk factors for cardiovascular, metabolic, immunologic, and neuropsychiatric health.

How to Help

Early identification

Early Identification is key to helping children and young people, first by promoting health and wellbeing in schools. Invite guest speakers, offer online webinars, promote health and wellbeing in school and that your organisation champions the wellbeing of its pupils. To promote social norms and family engagement, it is vital to educate parents so they in turn can set good examples for their children. Get parents the information they need, offer volunteer opportunities and resources as well as any additional support they may require. 


Early intervention is crucial for children, particularly for their mental health and wellbeing. Mental health problems are common and often develop during childhood and adolescence, but they are treatable which is why early detection and intervention is crucial. School experiences shape people for life and when they are part of a ‘well’ school that protects and safeguards their mental health, young people are more resilient and have an improved ability to succeed in life and all its ups and downs.

Support mental health in schools, through mentoring programs and mindfulness. Take away the stigma associated with mental health and encourage children and young people to express their emotions. It is also important to have protocols in place to offer aid to students who are struggling, counsellors and safe spaces for them to voice what they are feeling.


In the return to the classroom post lockdown, it is vital for schools to have a Recovery curriculum in place. After months of lacking structure, we expect some children and young people may struggle with returning to classroom learning, this recovery curriculum will re-engage students and lead them back to their status as learners, getting them ready to learn and grow within the school environment.

After months of practising social distancing and being in lockdown, it is important to establish your school as a safe space for learning. Schools should have safe spaces both physically and mentally as students and teachers return to the classroom. Social distancing can mean that some children and young people may not disclose their concerns due to the physical distance between them and their teachers. We must compensate by making the spaces in school feel safe, allowing students to feel secure in disclosing issues and asking for help despite the 2-metre distance between them and their teachers.



Get ACE Aware

You can help reduce ACEs by: ​

  • Being ACE aware and strive to ensure that all pupils feel safe, supported and connected​
  • Maintain a safe, predictable, calm environment that priorities relationships and consistency​
  • Remember behaviour is a symptom of the problem, not the problem
  • Take an interest in the pupils – they need to know you care.​
  • Listen to pupils more and talk at them less​
  • Supporting parents and families – improves the pupils’ outcomes​
  • Focus on supporting student wellbeing – check out our blog and webinar on Student Mental Health and Wellbeing
  • Building resilience in children and wider communities ​
  • Encouraging wider awareness and understanding about ACEs and their impact on health and behaviour​
  • Take care of yourself – the children need you to be at your best​
  • Do not take things personally – it’s not about you

Everyone has a role in tackling ACEs, as professionals, parents, and members of the community. It is possible to break the cycle of ACES at any stage, it is never too late to intervene. It is important to focus on not only supporting children and young people but also colleagues and other members of staff as well.

Posted Date

30th March 2021

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