The stress of a spelling bee or a challenging science project can enhance a student's focus and promote learning. But the stress of a dysfunctional or unstable home life can poison a child's cognitive ability for a lifetime, according to new research.
While educators and psychologists have said for decades that the effects of poverty interfere with students' academic achievement, new evidence from cognitive and neuroscience is showing exactly how adversity in childhood damages students' long-term learning and health.
Research from Dr. Shonkoff's center and from other experts finds that positive stress—the kind that comes from telling a toddler he can't have a cookie or a teenager that she's about to take a pop quiz—causes a brief rise in heart rate and stress hormones. A jolt can focus a student's attention and is generally considered healthy.
Similarly, a child can tolerate stress that is severe but may be relatively short-term—from the death of a loved one, for example—as long as he or she has support.
"Adults help children develop strategies to help cope with these stressors," Dr. Shonkoff said. "Whether it's reading or managing stress, adults provide the scaffolding for children to build those skills themselves."
'Toxic' RecipeBy contrast, so-called "toxic stress" is severe, sustained, and not buffered by supportive relationships.
The same brain flexibility, called plasticity, that makes children open to learning in their early years also makes them particularly vulnerable to damage from the toxic stressors that often accompany poverty: high mobility and homelessness; hunger and food instability; parents who are in jail or absent; domestic violence; drug abuse; and other problems, according to Pat Levitt, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Southern California and the director of the Keck School of Medicine Center on the Developing Child in Los Angeles.
Good experiences, like nurturing parents and rich early-child-care environments, help build and reinforce neural connections in areas such as language development and self-control, while adversity weakens those connections.
Over time, the connections, good or bad, stabilize, "and you can't go back and rewire; you have to adapt," Dr. Shonkoff said. "If you've built on strong foundations, that's good, and if you have weak foundations, the brain has to work harder, and it costs more to the brain and society."
For example, a study in the October issue of the peer-reviewed journal Child Development found that out of more than 26,000 students in the Minneapolis public schools, those who moved more than three times a year had significantly lower mathematics achievement and academic growth than students with more stable homes.
In a separate study, Richard P. Barth, the dean and a professor of social work at the University of Maryland College Park, found children with six or more adverse experiences before age 3 were overwhelmingly likely to be identified as needing special education for developmental delay.
Self-Control or Trust?Moreover, a child's ability to delay gratification and control him- or herself—often seen as a personality trait critical for academic success—can be hugely dependent on the child's sense of stability in the environment and trust in surrounding adults.
In a twist on the classic Stanford University "marshmallow experiment," in which young children's ability to resist eating a marshmallow was tested to show their self-control, researchers led by Celeste Kidd, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester in New York recently found children who trusted the word of the adult tester and felt their environment was more stable waited four times as long for a treat as those who felt more insecure.
The effects of early stress can linger for decades and go well beyond learning difficulties.
"What happens in childhood, like a child's footprint in wet cement, leaves its mark forever," said Dr. Vincent J. Felitti, the director of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study at the health-care provider Kaiser Permanente's department of preventive medicine in San Diego.
Known as the ACE study and done in collaboration with Dr. Robert F. Anda at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the project analyzed longitudinal data on more than 17,400 middle-class adults in the Kaiser Permanente system.
Participants reported whether, as children, they had experienced repeated physical, sexual, or severe emotional abuse, and whether they had grown up with any of five types of "household dysfunction": a family member in prison; domestic violence; an alcoholic or drug abuser in the home; someone in the home who was depressed, mentally ill, or suicidal; or loss of at least one biological parent during childhood for any reason.
Adversity, Decades LaterAs it turned out, more than half the adults had had at least one type of severe abuse or home dysfunction in childhood, and one in 16 had experienced four or more. The number of traumatic childhood experiences, Dr. Felitti found, was directly proportional to a person's risk of a wide variety of major medical and social problems, from teenage pregnancy and drug abuse to adult heart disease and hepatitis.
"These results are almost unique in their magnitude," Dr. Felitti said. A boy with six indicators of abuse and home dysfunction was 4,600 percent more likely than a boy with no risk factors to become an intravenous-drug user, according to the study.
Such findings mean that teachers and doctors are left trying to fix late symptoms, like poor reading skills or boredom in school, rather than underlying issues that occur much earlier in life.
"The science [on the effects of poverty and stress] has exploded in the last 25 years, but the policy on the delivery of child care has stalled, without anything close to similar progress," Dr. Shonkoff said.
While federal and state education programs typically focus on academic remediation and nutrition for disadvantaged students, "for some kids, no matter how well you do that, it's not enough, because the amount of adversity in their lives overwhelms," he said.
"It's asking too much," Dr. Shonkoff said, "to require parent education and an enriched preschool program to counteract the effects of the level of adversity in some kids' lives that is whipping up their stress-response systems."
Researchers, including Mr. Levitt of USC and Dr. Felitti, are starting to explore new interventions, both medical and cognitive, that might protect children's developing brains from damage caused by stress and improve their ability to cope.
So far, there are no classroom-ready techniques beyond developing supportive relationships between teachers and parents and their children, Mr. Levitt said. "Helping people after the fact is really nibbling at the edges of the problems," Dr. Felitti said during a presentation on the research at the Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans last month. "We need a polio vaccine, as opposed to buying bigger and better iron lungs."
"Stress is not something you get a lot of sympathy for," Dr. Shonkoff said in a separate interview at the Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness meeting in Washington. "This is a culture that says suck it up and get over it."
But in reality, Dr. Felitti concluded, "the [ACE] study makes it clear that time does not heal some of the adverse experiences we found so common. ... One does not 'just get over' some things, not even 50 years later."
So "bolder, faster change" is not the answer to these problems.
Race to the Top is not the answer to these problems.
Firing teachers and closing schools are not the answer to these problems.
This is very complex and gets at a core dysfunction of American society and culture.
We cannot seem to understand that people are not "human do-ings," they are human "be-ings" - with minds and hearts and spirits that need to be nurtured and cared for throughout their lives.
When you look at the "No Excuses!" education reformers and their wealthy funders - from Eva Moskowitz to Michelle Rhee to Joel Klein to Michael Bloomberg to Bill Gates - you see people who are incapable of understanding that education means more than just educating minds.
It means ministering to the hearts and spirits too.
I just finished working on college essays with three classes of seniors.
I see that unit as socio-emotional unit, not a creative writing unit.
Many of my students are attending community colleges where they do not need to submit college essays, so I like to use the college essay lessons as an opportunity to minister to hearts and spirits.
We lead up to the actual writing process by reading a series of college essays where students have written quite honestly and openly about the obstacles they have faced in their lives and how they have overcome them or are trying to overcome them.
We do some work on narrative essay writing and personal essay writing so that students have the tools to tell their own stories.
Then we write in class and I go around to each and every student and sit with them to talk through their essays.
Some students say "I don't know what to write about!", but after I sit with them for a few minutes and question them about their lives, their families, their childhood experiences, their greatest triumphs and starkest fears, almost all come away with essay topics.
We keep reminding ourselves as we write to maintain focus by saying "What is the story we're telling, how did these events make us feel and what have learned or how have we grown from them?"
There are often tears during this process, as students open up their hearts to the stories they need to tell.
The end products - the essays - are gripping, compelling reading.
The students who need to use them for actual college essays submit them.
Some need to use this essay as the pre-writing process, to get out toxic feelings about parents, friends, community or themselves, so that they can write a college essay that is honest and forthright, but also measured in tone and perspective.
Almost every student comes out the other side saying what an emotional experience the writing was, but also what a positive experience it was.
I made copies of about 25 essays this year, a sample of different kinds of essays - some very personal, some creative, some strictly academic - and put them in my "College Essay Folder".
And every year I go back and reread those essays before I start teaching the college essay unit so I can remind myself of the humanity of my students, of the incredible obstacles they face, the struggles they have, and the amazing way they handle these struggles.
The topics range from dealing with death, depression, suicidal feelings, eating disorders, drug use, jail, feelings of anger, feelings of abandonment, low self-esteem over their bodies, and many other core emotional crises.
I wish that the so-called education reformers who are constantly blaming teachers and schools for the "education crisis" in the country would realize the crisis is socio-emotional, not academic.
Fix the problems delineated by this study and you close the "achievement gap".
It's that simple - and that hard to do.
Because it is so hard to do, the reformers take the easier, softer way out - scapegoat teachers and schools, fire teachers, close schools and pat themselves on the back for the great job their doing standing up to the "status quo".
Meanwhile real students made of real flesh and blood continue to bleed from the damage done to them - both when they were children before they made it to school, and now from the so-called reforms that standardize and quantify everything they do without addressing any of the real problems.