|drawing by Geonni Banner|
from: The Atlantic Monthly June issue, by Paul Tough illustrations by Keith Negley (not found in the source article)
What is emerging is a new idea: that qualities like grit and resilience are not formed through the traditional mechanics of “teaching”; instead, a growing number of researchers now believe, they are shaped by several specific environmental forces, both in the classroom and in the home, sometimes in subtle and intricate ways.
The process begins in early childhood, when the most important force shaping the development of these skills turns out to be a surprising one: stress. Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity how severe and chronic stress in childhood—what doctors sometimes call toxic stress—leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop and, significantly, the way they function in school.
Each of us has within us an intricate stress-response network that links together the brain, the immune system, and the endocrine system (the glands that produce and release stress hormones). In childhood, and especially in early childhood, this network is highly sensitive to environmental cues; it is constantly looking for signals from a child’s surroundings that might tell it what to expect in the days and years ahead. When those signals suggest that life is going to be hard, the network reacts by preparing for trouble: raising blood pressure, increasing the production of adrenaline, heightening vigilance. Neuroscientists have shown that children living in poverty experience more toxic stress than middle-class children, and that additional stress expresses itself in higher blood pressure and higher levels of certain stress hormones.
In the short term, these adaptations may have benefits, especially in a dangerous environment. When your threat-detection system—sometimes referred to as your fight-or-flight response—is on high alert, you can react quickly to trouble. But in the longer term, they can cause an array of physiological problems and impede development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls our most complex intellectual functions, as well as our ability to regulate ourselves both emotionally and cognitively.
On an emotional level, toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. A highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up, and, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers or teachers.
On a cognitive level, chronically elevated stress can disrupt the development of what are known as executive functions: higher-order mental abilities that some researchers compare to a team of air-traffic controllers overseeing the workings of the brain. Executive functions, which include working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility, are exceptionally helpful in navigating unfamiliar situations and processing new information, which is exactly what we ask children to do at school every day. When a child’s executive functions aren’t fully developed, school days, with their complicated directions and constant distractions, can become a never-ending exercise in frustration.
Executive functions also serve as the developmental building blocks—the neurological infrastructure—underpinning the noncognitive capacities that educators are now so focused on. What this suggests is that if we want to help children demonstrate these qualities in school, there are two places where we need to change our approach. One is the classroom, where right now many fundamental practices of modern American pedagogy ignore this science of adversity. The second is where children’s neurobiological identity begins to be formed, long before they ever set foot in kindergarten: the home.
The most important environmental factor in children’s early lives, researchers have shown, is the way their parents and other adults interact with them. Beginning in infancy, children rely on responses from their parents to help them make sense of the world. Researchers at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child have labeled these “serve and return” interactions. An infant makes a sound or looks at an object—that’s the serve—and her parents return the serve by responding to her babbles and cries with gestures, facial expressions, and speech. More than any other experiences in infancy, these rudimentary interactions trigger the development and strengthening of connections among the regions of the brain that control emotion, cognition, language, and memory.
A second crucial role that parents play early on is as external regulators of their children’s stress. When parents behave harshly or unpredictably—especially at moments when their children are upset—the children are less likely over time to develop the ability to manage strong emotions and respond effectively to stressful situations. By contrast, when a child’s parents respond to her jangled emotions in a sensitive and measured way, she is more likely to learn that she herself has the capacity to cope with her feelings, even intense and unpleasant ones.
But if a home environment can have a positive impact on a child’s development, it can also do the opposite. One of the most influential studies of the long-term effect of a stressful early home life is the ongoing Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which was launched in the 1990s by Robert F. Anda, a physician at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Vincent J. Felitti, the founder of the preventive-medicine department at Kaiser Permanente. Anda and Felitti identified 10 categories of childhood trauma: three categories of abuse, two of neglect, and five related to growing up in a “seriously dysfunctional household.” They found that the number of these traumas a person experiences in childhood (a number that has come to be known as a person’s ace score) correlates in adulthood with health problems ranging from heart disease to cancer.
More recently, researchers using variations on Anda and Felitti’s ace scale have found that an elevated ace score also has a negative effect on the development of a child’s executive functions and on her ability to learn effectively in school. A study conducted by Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and trauma researcher in San Francisco, found that just 3 percent of children in her clinic with an ace score of zero displayed learning or behavioral problems. But among children who had an ace score of four or more, 51 percent had learning or behavioral problems. A separate national study published in 2014 found that children with two or more aces were eight times as likely as children with none to demonstrate behavioral problems and more than twice as likely to repeat a grade in school. According to this study, slightly more than half of all children have never experienced a serious adverse event—but the other half, the ones with at least one ace, account for 85 percent of the behavioral problems that children exhibit.
For children who grow up without significant experiences of adversity, the skill-development process leading up to kindergarten generally works the way it’s supposed to: Calm, consistent, responsive interactions in infancy with parents and other caregivers create neural connections that lay the foundation for a healthy array of attention and concentration skills. Just as early stress sends signals to the nervous system to maintain constant vigilance and prepare for a lifetime of trouble, early warmth and responsiveness send the opposite signals: You’re safe; life is going to be fine. Let down your guard; the people around you will protect you and provide for you. Be curious about the world; it’s full of fascinating surprises. These messages trigger adaptations in children’s brains that allow them to slow down and consider problems and decisions more carefully, to focus their attention for longer periods, and to more willingly trade immediate gratification for promises of long-term benefits.
We don’t always think of these abilities as academic in nature, but in fact they are enormously beneficial in helping kids achieve academic success in kindergarten and beyond. Without them, the transition from home or day care to kindergarten is likely to be fraught, and the challenge of learning the many things we ask kindergarten students to master can be overwhelming. In the classroom, neurocognitive difficulties can quickly turn into academic difficulties. Students don’t learn to read on time, because it is harder for them to concentrate on the words on the page. They don’t learn the basics of number sense, because they are too distracted by the emotions and anxieties overloading their nervous systems. As academic material becomes more complicated, they fall further behind. The more they fall behind, the worse they feel about themselves and about school. That creates more stress, which tends to feed into behavioral problems, which lead to stigmatization and punishment in the classroom, which keep their stress levels elevated, which makes it still harder to concentrate—and so on, throughout elementary school.
Fast-forward a few years, to the moment when those students arrive in middle or high school, and these executive-function challenges are now typically perceived to be problems of attitude or motivation. When teachers and administrators are confronted with students who find it hard to concentrate, manage their emotions, or deal calmly with provocation, the first instinct often is not to look at them as children who, because of a lifetime of stress, haven’t yet developed a healthy set of self-regulation mechanisms. Instead, the adults see them as kids with behavioral problems who need, more than anything, to be disciplined.
The artist: Keith Negley is a nationally recognized editorial and children’s book illustrator with 15 years experience working for major newspapers, magazines and publishers. His work has appeared on book covers, children's books, t-shirts, album covers, posters, skateboard decks, and watches, and he is a frequent contributor to