25 Calls response: An ACE-aware nation? Yes, but let’s be arts-aware too
20 Feb 2019
Responding to Starcatchers’ call on the need for children to access the arts from the earliest age, writer and poet Tom Pow explains how creativity can kindle hope in the midst of adversity
Call 24: Ensure all children can participate in high quality, innovative arts experiences from the earliest age
If the term Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is new to you, the best place to start would be Dr Nadine Burke Harris's TED Talk (available on YouTube) titled 'How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime'.
In it, she describes how toxic stress in childhood, led by a number of key drivers, such as abuse, neglect, alcoholism/drug abuse of a parent, has led to the identification of ACEs as one of the leading factors in early death in the world. Even if the abuse happens before memory is formed, the body remembers.
At a major conference, in September last year, which stated the ambition of 'Making Scotland the World's First ACE-Aware Nation,' John Swinney told the audience that “ACEs are about everything”. He answered his own question, “Why is the Scottish Government committed to being ACE-Aware?” with, “Because it can't afford not to be.”
In other words, the cost of supporting, often incarcerating and healing those whose resilience has been weakened by ACEs, is enormous. In a day rich with telling anecdotes, Swinney told of an adult who had had a troubled life due to language problems. “If we'd spent money on speech and language therapy when he was two...” He also saw the issue as a “moral purpose”, asserting that we should all “grow up, loved, safe, respected and able to fulfil our potential”.
"If the Scottish Government cannot afford not to pay attention to ACEs, it cannot afford not to fund creative experiences for our youngest children – for all our children – and for those damaged by adverse early experiences"
There was recognition throughout the day that no single agency can affect change: rather that cumulative and collaborative action by multiple partners is necessary. But Nadine Burke Harris also urged individual action: “Start where you are. Do what you can. Hope to inspire conversations, but above all action.” In terms of individual intervention, she advised, “Ask children what's happened to you rather than what's wrong with you.”
One of the most eloquent speakers, and certainly the most compelling storyteller of the day, James Docherty, told how, when his life was in utmost despair, he met someone who enabled him to reflect on his life, to understand his violent responses, and to find compassion for himself. He told the audience not to “mould children, but to return them to what they are and to love that”. Bruno Bettelheim wrote something similar about the aims of Freudian analysis: “Where it was, there should become I.”
I hope I have given an idea of the richness of the day, the commitment and sense of possibility that spread from the stage and enlivened conversations in the large hall. But what confounded me more and more as the day went on was the absence of any explicit consideration of the role of the arts in all of this. There were a couple of poems read, a recording of a song played, a play described, yet there was nowhere an acknowledgement of the crucial role that the arts (can) play in nurturing the ideas and emotions that were expressed in words and phrases throughout the day: “the healing power of connection”; “compassion”; “conversation”; “curiosity”; “empathy”.
Relationship-based practice can of course be grounded in any discipline. But the arts, I would argue, offer the greatest opportunities for the amelioration of ACEs. Within the safe space inherent in creativity, ideas can be both expressed and explored, emotional landscapes opened and, with proper intervention, transformed. This softening of the toxicity of ACEs can happen at any age – James Docherty is proof of that – but, as John Swinney recognises, for obvious reasons, it is best achieved in the early years.
It is because of the importance of the arts within the context of Making Scotland the World's First ACE-Aware Nation that I write most urgently to support Call 24 of Children in Scotland's 25 Calls for change. The call, from Rhona Matheson, Chief Executive of Starcatchers, Scotland's National Arts and Early Years Organisation, is to 'Ensure all children can participate in high quality, innovative arts experiences from the earliest age.' ('...onwards' is silent but implied after that last phrase.)
Matheson writes of the importance of the creative processes involved in artistic activities, experiences which 'facilitate deep learning, allowing children to explore the world around them, developing curiosity and imagination, and stimulating dialogue, connection and empathy.' If the Scottish Government cannot afford not to pay attention to ACEs, it cannot afford not to fund creative experiences for our youngest children – for all our children – and for those damaged by adverse early experiences.
The arts show that there are more ways to be; other choices to make; they can kindle hope. As another speaker, John Carnochan, who oversaw the innovative Glasgow approach to knife crime, said, “Hope changes everything”.
Tom Pow is an award-winning poet and writer. He is Creative Director of A Year of Conversation 2019 - a collaborative project designed to celebrate, initiate and explore conversation through the creativity of those who live in Scotland and beyond.
He is responding here to call 24 of our 25 Calls campaign, 'Ensure all children can participate in high quality, innovative arts experiences from the earliest age' by Rhona Matheson, CEO of Starcatchers.
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