Screening for adverse childhood experiences in pediatrics: A randomized trial of aggregate-level versus item-level response screening formats

PLoS One. 2022 Dec 15;17(12):e0273491. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0273491. eCollection 2022.


Background: While there is growing support for screening for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), rigorous evidence on the efficacy and preference of screening methods is needed.

Objective: To examine caregiver: (1) rates of disclosure of their child's exposure to ACEs using item-level response (each item can be endorsed) versus aggregate-level response (only total score reported) screening format, (2) associations between family demographic factors and disclosure by screening format, and (3) emotional reaction and experience of screening formats in a diverse, low-income pediatric population.

Methods: Caregiver participants (n = 367) were randomized to complete the Pediatric ACEs and Related Life Events Screener (PEARLS) tool, in an aggregate-level response vs item-level response format from 2016-2019. Select caregivers (n = 182) participated in debriefing interviews. T-test and chi-square analyses in 2019 compared PEARLS disclosure rates and reactions between the screening modalities. Regression models explored interactions with child characteristics. Thematic analysis of interview notes captured caregiver screening experience.

Results: PEARLS disclosure rates were significantly higher in the aggregate-level response compared to the item-level response screening arm (p <0.05). This difference was accentuated for children identified as black and/or male (p <0.05). Caregiver reactions to PEARLS screening were rarely negative in either screening format. Qualitative data demonstrated strong caregiver preference for the item-level response format; additional themes include provider relationship, fear with disclosure, and screening outcome expectations.

Conclusion: While caregivers reported a preference for the item-level response format, the aggregate-level response screening format elicited higher disclosures rates particularly for children who are black or ma.

Trial registration: Clinical trial registry: NCT04182906.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Caregivers / psychology
  • Child
  • Disclosure
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pediatrics*

Associated data


Grants and funding

The PEARLS study was supported by the TARA Health Foundation and in part by Genentech Corporate Giving. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The authors have no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.