The Child Stress Epidemic

What it means and how to end it

One in five children in the United States is growing up in what we call “the context of adversity” — a stressful environment characterized by poverty, chaos, or exposure to violence — and this context has profound effects on their neurological development. There is a connection between adversity and academic underperformance, a biological one that education reform efforts to date have failed to unpack and address successfully.

Adversity doesn’t just happen to children. It happens inside them through the biological mechanism of stress. Stress unleashes a hormonal cascade in a child’s brain, starting with the release of cortisol, which produces another set of chemicals called cytokines. Over time, cortisol and cytokines weaken children’s immune systems, allowing for higher rates of infection, asthma, obesity, and cardiac and pulmonary diseases. Crucially, these chemicals also affect the learning brain, a complex set of structures called the limbic system.

Most meaningful learning takes place in the limbic system, a part of the brain that is exquisitely sensitive to stress. This area comprises the prefrontal cortex, responsible for attention and executive function; the hippocampus, which houses memory; and the amygdala, the brain’s emotional smoke detector. These structures are cross-wired; they talk to each other. The limbic system remembers stress long after a stressful event has occurred. Studies show that children who have suffered from traumatic stress are more likely to have issues with attention, concentration, irritability, and organization. One child in a classroom with these attentional and behavioral challenges will often disrupt a lesson. Now, imagine 30 children with these kinds of struggles; they can shut learning down for everyone. Then consider that there are 47,000 schools in America located in high-poverty communities, where many more children struggle with adversity.

The schools we are talking about often have a small percentage of children who have such intense needs that they can bring the whole institution to its knees. If those children do not receive highly effective support services, it can be very hard to teach and learn around them. It’s very important that we rebuild these systems in schools, with social workers and effective training for teachers and administrators, in order to be able to identify the students with high needs and get them real help.

Our classrooms need to become delivery systems for neurodevelopmental healing. The notion that this can only be achieved by fixing poverty itself is pervasive and incorrect. Public schools could be addressing this problem now, within our current means, repairing what stress does to the developing brains of children. One of our most potent assets in this struggle is simple and cheap — the power of human relationships.

In the early 1970s, psychologist Walter Mischel investigated the ability of children to delay gratification in his now-famous Stanford marshmallow experiment. As you may know, this involved giving a child a marshmallow and promising a second one if the child waited 15 minutes to eat the first. Mischel found that a child’s ability to delay gratification correlated with higher SAT scores and greater career prospects. Recently, a researcher decided to repeat that experiment in the homeless shelter where she had worked. Her goal was to identify the most decisive factor in a child’s ability to delay gratification. That factor turned out to be trust. If the child trusted the person serving the marshmallow, he or she was more likely to wait the 15 minutes.

In other words, trust is the antidote to stress. And trust is also fuel for healthy brain development. When children experience a connection with a trusted adult, their brains release dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone. The effect of that hormonal cascade is that it reduces cortisol. If you had a person in your life who believed in you, whom you couldn’t bear to let down — a parent, a teacher — you ought to be very grateful. Maybe you were fortunate enough to have more than one of those people in your life, but for some children, school is the one place where they might receive that kind of support. We cannot afford to let them down.

The experience of adversity also undermines the development of skills essential for success in school and life. We need to gear our teacher training efforts toward increasing students’ self-regulation and executive function skills and encouraging a growth mindset. These skills correlate to, and even predict, academic achievement. All of this can be woven into regular teaching practices. My organization, Turnaround for Children, works with education leaders to help them execute a strategy for building the developmental competencies most impacted by adversity in their schools.

The practices themselves are easy to learn; getting them into the drinking water in schools and districts is the challenge, as it requires intensive staff development and coaching. Once teachers receive that training and support, however, the methods sell themselves. The teachers get an immediate bang for their buck; they’re not screaming at children, their own cortisol levels are not through the roof, they are building stronger relationships with their students, and they have more time to actually teach with children whose minds are open to learning. Soon enough, other teachers want to try what’s working in their classrooms.

There are at least 47,000 schools that could use this help today. Instead of trying to beat the odds, let’s use science to change the odds, for all children.