Supporting Students w/ ACEs & a Conversation with Varian Johnson, Books Between Episode 48

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!


Hi and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who loves middle grade books.  I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of two girls and a 5th grade teacher in Central New York. I believe in the power of books to help us see each other more clearly.  And my goal is to help you find fabulous books for the tweens in your life and help create a community where we all can support each other as we build those readers.

This is Episode #48 and today I’m discussing how to support readers with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and then I’ll share with you a conversation with Varian Johnson – author of The Parker Inheritance.

A few quick announcements before we dive in today – the Middle Grade at Heart Book Club Twitter chat about The Parker Inheritance is Tuesday, May 1st (tomorrow!) at 5pm PT / 8PM ET. Just search for the hashtag #mgbookclub and jump into the conversation. Varian will be participating so if you have a question you want to ask him, here’s your chance!  Also, the May MG at Heart Book Club pick is Every Shiny Thing by Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen and in June we’ll be reading The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras.

And – we at MGBookVillage have some exciting news to tell you! We will be spending the month of May honoring educators! Over the next few weeks we’ll share posts and interviews with inspiring teachers, literacy specialists, principals, and all those who work to create passionate middle grade readers.MGBookVillageEducatorsMonth

We’re also excited to host four educator-focused Twitter chats every Monday evening this May at 9pm EST with topics like Fictional Teachers and Connecting with Authors – so head to for all the details and to stay up-to-date on all things middle grade.

You can also find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of this show at – including links to every topic and book we mention. So definitely check that out!

Main Topic – Supporting Students with Adverse Childhood Experiences

A couple months ago I had the opportunity at my school to attend a professional development session lead by my principal, Amy Horack, about ACEs – an acronym which I came to learn means “Adverse Childhood Experiences”. And it really opened my eyes to seeing the struggles many of my students have had in a new light – a new frame that helped me make sense of some of their behaviours and look for ways to support them. So today I am going to share with you a bit of what I discovered that day (and since then) with the hope that you will be inspired to learn more so we can support those students. First, I’ll share some definitions and discuss what Adverse Childhood Experiences are and how to calculate your own ACEs score. Then I’ll chat a bit about what that means for children and what impact a high ACEs score has on their health and behaviors. And then I’ll discuss some things we can do as educators and parents to be trauma-informed in our teaching and help support those kids as readers – and in all aspects of their life.

Definitions and Discussion

Let’s start with a definition. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are stressful or traumatic events that happen in childhood. These might include economic hardship, abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse. ACEs are highly correlated with a variety of health problems throughout a person’s life and substance abuse as a teen and adult. And also impact their opportunities and ability to learn.   

In my research, I found several different studies that used a variety of indicators to calculate a person’s ACEs score. There isn’t one set list, but typically there are about 10 questions with a higher score indicating more risk for negative health effects and other impacts that we can see in the children we work with – and the adults in their lives.

I am going to read off a list of situations, and I’d encourage you to first think about your own score. (Mine is three.) And think about the children you interact with. By the time they are an adult, about 67% of people will have a score of at least one. 22% will have two or more ACES, with almost 10% having scores of 3 or higher.

Adverse Childhood Experiences:

  • Have you ever lived with a parent or guardian who got divorced or separated?
  • Has a member of your household ever died?
  • Have you or a member of your household dealt with a life-threatening health situation or chronic disease?
  • Have you experienced a life-threatening accident or natural disaster?
  • Has a member of your household ever served time in jail or prison?
  • Have you ever lived with anyone who was mentally ill or suicidal, or severely depressed for more than a couple weeks?
  • Have you ever lived with anyone who had a problem with alcohol or drugs?
  • Have you ever been the victim of emotional neglect in your home? (For example, you often felt that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important, or supported each other.)
  • Have you ever been the victim of physical neglect in your home? (For example, the adults in your household didn’t provide clean clothes, meals, or take you a doctor or dentist?)
  • Have you ever been the victim of physical abuse in your home? (For example, someone in your household who might hit, kick, bite, or throw things at you?)
  • Have you ever been the victim of emotional abuse in your home? (For example, someone in your household who might swear at you, insult you, or humiliate you?)
  • Have you ever been the victim of sexual abuse or unwanted touching?
  • Have you ever witnessed physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in your home or neighborhood?
  • Have you ever experienced extreme economic hardship where the family found it difficult to cover the costs of food and housing?
  • Have you ever been treated or judged unfairly due to your race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity?

Impacts on Adults

So what does this mean? The first ACEs study conducted in 1998 and reinforced by dozens of studies afterward has found a strong link between childhood trauma and profound negative impacts on adult health like alcoholism, chronic depression, suicide attempts, trouble holding a job – and so, so much more. (I don’t want to go too far down the road of adult impacts because I really do want to focus on children, but I encourage you to take a closer look at that research. I recommended and


Impacts on Children

Let’s talk a bit about what the effects of ACEs looks like with kids and how to support them. As others have said, it’s about a change in mindset from “What’s wrong with this kid?” to “What happened to this kid?”  As I read this list of some of the effects on children, think about how that impacts them as readers:

  1. Antisocial behaviors and difficulty trusting others including both adults and peers (I think about how hard it can be for some readers to trust you and your recommendations, and to open up to you and the class about their thinking as they read. These are also the children I see struggling to participate well in in book clubs – who may resist sharing their feelings and being too vulnerable.)
  2. Social isolation (What comes to mind for me are those quiet, fly under the radar, submissive kids – those who curl up with a book as an escape, but not necessarily interacting with anyone else. Or those students who will submit to reading whatever you recommend but who aren’t making their own choices.)
  3. Difficulty seeking help (I absolutely see that kids who are dealing with a lot outside of school, sometimes don’t want to tell me they are having a hard time with a book. They’ll just push through thinking it’s going to make me happy. Or they just don’t have the mental energy to explain what they are struggling with as a reader.)
  4. Frequent absences, medical issues, or requests to go to the nurse / bathroom (Every one of those is just more time away from that immersive, productive reading. I’m also thinking that it’s hard to keep continuity with a book when a child is distracted by a medical issue or missing a lot of class time. I’m thinking of all the conferring they miss, to missing big chucks of the class read aloud where you are modeling strategies. And when they get back and you attempt to catch them up, now they are missing something else… I STILL have nightmares about coming back to school after a long absence and not remembering my locker combination or my schedule – it’s stressful!)
  5. Difficulty with focus and transitions (Of course, a child who is distracted by home situations and dealing with chronic stress will have difficulty selected that good book and a quiet spot to read in the time frame you are hoping for.)
  6. Trouble with organization (I’ve noticed that kids who travel back and forth between two or more households tend to lose things more often – including books. But I’ve also noticed that if a child fears consequences at home of a library fine or a note from me about a missing book, they may not want to even check out books or take them home.)  
  7. Anxiety (In thinking about students with Adverse Childhood Experiences and anxiety, I notice that some really shy away from books with heavier themes that might bring up difficult emotions. They’re the kids who want the assurance that the dog on the cover is going to make it at the end. Or may feel reticent about reading a book that will hit too close home. One the one hand, I think it’s really important to have books available where students can see that characters have dealt with similar issues to their own so they don’t feel alone. And it’s important for other students to read those books to develop some empathy and understanding. But – it’s also okay if a child doesn’t want to read something that might trigger them but instead looks to reading as an escape. So I’m thinking that having fun, light books than can provide that safe haven for students is also key and to honor those choices.)
  8. Difficulty with academic achievement (Absolutely! And since becoming a strong and competent reader is the linchpin to gathering all other knowledge – it reinforces to me that importance of focusing on reading.)
  9. Difficulty planning for the future (When a child can’t rely on stability at home, it’s no wonder that kids can’t tell me what book they’re going to read next or how they are going to schedule in their reading homework at night – sometimes they don’t know what they are coming home to! Or – more likely – they know exactly what they are going home to and it’s not a situation conducive to reading.)
  10. Trouble regulating their emotions and their affect – facial expressions – either exaggerating them or having no affect (This brings to mind a former student who would seemingly overreact to their reading – bursting out in this wild laughter or tossing the book aside in anger. And at the time, I did think “What is the matter with this kid?” But now…I can only wonder – “What was really going on with that child?”

How to Support Students with ACEs

In thinking about how to support the children in our lives who have those ACEs, I think for me, starting with that mindset change was a key first step. I think it’s natural to respond to some of those situations by wanting to get worked up yourself, but I’m trying to pause and realize that it’s not personal. And find some better strategies. So, I do not, by any means, want to portray myself here as any kind of expert. And I encourage you to look at the research yourself and see what might work for you. But after doing some reading, here are some things I’m going to try:

First, I want to recognize and support the resilience they already have. When I think about what some of my students have been through, I am so proud of what they are accomplishing despite the stress they may be under. So, highlighting their strengths whenever possible and help them build themselves up is something I want to focus more on.

Second, since kids who have experienced trauma can often suffer from worry and have trouble regulating their emotions and actions, I want to make sure my classroom environment is as stable and calm as possible. So being more aware of my language and tone of voice and nonverbal cues – even when I’m frustrated is something I want to be more aware of. And providing a stable routine with more opportunities for movement and snack breaks. I’m really intrigued by some teachers who’ve set up what they call a Calming Station in their room with things like a comfortable chair, soft music, lavender scented play-doh, some gum, resources on meditation, and an opportunity to write about what they’re feeling. So I think I’m going to start to get together a kit to keep in my classroom.  

Also, learning more about the impacts of ACEs has reinforced even more, the importance of building relationships with my students. And having more casual one-on-one conversations where I’m not asking them to comply with a direction, but I’m just asking about their interests. Which has the double benefit of helping me know them better as readers and people.  The more I think back, the more I am appalled at the advice I got as a young teacher to never smile before Christmas! Who wants to spend 8 hours a day with someone who never smiles?  These kids – and all kids – need warm, nurturing, safe, and stable relationships. And a teacher who smiles and welcomes them by name every day. I used to give a general welcome as students arrived but this year, I made the decision to make sure I welcome every kid by name within the first ten minutes of them arriving at school. And it has made a difference. And try to ask them a little something (What did you of the ending of Amulet? How was your game last night?) or notice something (The unicorn on your shirt reminds me of this new series you might like – The Unicorn Rescue Society!)

And finally it reminds me to be more observant and not let things go. If something doesn’t feel right in your interactions with a child, I don’t want to let them fall through the cracks. If you notice something that warrants it, please call Child Protective Services. I’ll drop a link to some indicators and a place you can go for more information.  But, if you’ve ever had to call CPS, you know it is complicated.  I’m reminded of The Last Jedi where Luke says to Rey, “This is not going to go the way you think.” There is no quick rescue from those dark situations, but being a positive presence, helping all students develop resilience and coping strategies – or even just offering a few hours of escape – can do more than you realize.

And I’ve said that learning more about how Adverse Childhood Experiences opened my eyes – but it also opened my heart to be more loving not only toward my students but also toward my colleagues – and even toward myself a bit, too.

If you want to know more (and I hope you do!) – I’ve including links to several sites that will give more details and more strategies you can use to help the children (and adults!) in your life.

For more information about ACEs:


Varian Johnson- Interview Outline

Our special guest this week is Varian Johnson, author of The Parker Inheritance! We discuss his love of puzzles, his research process, favorite childhood books, and so much more!  And joining me this month to chat with Varian Johnson is one of the founders of the MG at Heart Book Club, Julie Artz.  

And I got so much great feedback from you all about the last episode’s Bonus Spoiler Section at the very end of the show that we doing it again! So, if you want to hear Varian talk about the end of his novel, I put that part of our conversation after the credits so this part will be spoiler-free.

Take a listen…



CA: For our listeners who haven’t yet read the novel, can you tell us a bit about The Parker Inheritance?

JA:  One of the things I love about The Parker Inheritance is how vivid the historical storyline is and how well it’s integrated into Candice & Brandon’s present-day story. Can you tell us a little bit about the research that went into writing this story?

CA: Your novel had such depth and nuance and included these small but powerful scenes – like Brandon feeling uncomfortable checking out “girl books”, and his older sister explaining why she slows down to avoid any chance of getting pulled over, the assistant principal discovering Brandon and Candice doing research and asking for their ID, and then…that scene between Siobhan and Chip and Reggie with the Coca Cola.  I just loved how there were these small dips into complicated themes. I guess this isn’t a question per se but more of a thank you for helping me see and think through some of those preconceptions and biases and for writing a novel that will also do that for my students….

JA: Who is your favorite character from The Parker Inheritance?

CA: One of the things I loved about Candice was her love of puzzles – and how she figured out Milo’s schedule so that Brandon could avoid him! Are you into puzzles and codes like Candice?

**BONUS SPOILER SECTION: Varian and Julie and I discussed the ending of the novel, and if you’d like to hear that conversation, I moved that part of the recording to after the end credits of today’s episode at the 50:58 mark.


JA: The way you melded the two timelines really built a lot of page-turning tension into the story. How did you plan that out as you were writing?varian-johnson

CA: As a writer, what were your early inspirations and what do you think teachers and parents can do to get young people writing more and writing more confidently?

JA: What are you writing next?


CA: Did you have a teacher or librarian in your life who helped you grow into a reader?

JA: I loved all the hat-tips to treasured books like The Westing Game that were sprinkled all through The Parker Inheritance. Any other childhood favorites you still love today?

CA: What are some books that you’ve been reading lately?


Varian Johnson’s website –

Varian on Twitter and Facebook

Althea Gibson

Mad Men

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar & Inception

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin)

Holes (Louis Sachar)

Beverly Cleary

Peter & Fudge Books (Judy Blume)

Blubber (Judy Blume)

Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret (Judy Blume)

Walter Dean Myers

Virginia Hamilton

Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson)

One Crazy Summer (Rita Williams Garcia)

Once You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead)

Goodbye Stranger (Rebecca Stead)

Shelby Holmes Series (Elizabeth Eulberg)

The Lonely Hearts Club (Elizabeth Eulberg)

The Mortification of Fovea Munson (Mary Winn Heider)


Alright, that wraps up our show this week!

If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Books Between is a proud member of the Education Podcast Network. This network EPN_badgefeatures podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at And, if you are liking the show, please leave us some love on iTunes or Stitcher so others can discover us as well.

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!


Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

Corrina is the host of Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love.

Find her on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.



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