“Neuroscientists find that early stress affects brain development”

Paul Tough, The Lavin Agency
Image: The Lavin Agency

Paul Tough looks at the impact of environmental stress on children’s ability to learn and names the factors that help them succeed despite adverse conditions.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: What can schools or teachers do to help children thrive and overcome the negative effects of growing up in poverty or adversity?

Paul Tough: Change the experiences students are having at school. In an environment where teachers create connections and relationships with students, children are going to thrive.

It’s harder to reverse effects of a stressful childhood with adolescents, but it can be done. I spent some time profiling a chess instructor at Intermediate School 318 in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Among the skills her students were mastering were some that looked exactly like what other educators called “character”: the students persisted at difficult tasks, overcoming great obstacles; they handled frustration and loss and failure with resilience; they set themselves long-term goals that often seemed out of reach.

I never once heard her say the words “grit” or “character” or “self-control.” She analyzed their games, talked about the mistakes they made, helped them to figure out what they could have done differently. The attention and care she gave to her students’ work gave them a sense of belonging, self-confidence, and purpose. Their chess games improved, and so did their outlook on life.

CSG: How does a stressful childhood prevent children from succeeding in school?

PT: Chronic early stress, or “toxic stress”, works on the emotional and cognitive levels. Emotionally, children have difficulty moderating their responses to disappointments and provocations and go through the day looking for the next threat to appear. The fight-or-flight instinct that young children fall back on when raised in a stressful environment is not going to help them succeed in school.

Neuroscientists are discovering that early childhood stress can affect brain development. High levels of stress, especially in early childhood, affect the development of the prefrontal cortex. So cognitively, the brain’s executive functions like working memory and self-regulation may not be fully developed. Processing new information and navigating unfamiliar situations – which is what we ask children to do at school every day – becomes a daily exercise in frustration.

CSG: Does this only affect children in low-income families?

PT: No, definitely not. In the U.S., though, toxic stress isn’t evenly distributed in society: you’re more likely to see this in poor neighborhoods. Home and family have the biggest influence in early childhood, and home traumas are those most likely to re-occur.

“If we want to help kids to persevere, we need first to figure out how to improve their environment, both at home and at school.”

By trauma, we’re not talking about isolated incidents as the traditional definition would have it, but a whole set of environmental factors that have adverse effects. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study conducted in the 1990s by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention together with Kaiser Permanente asked adults about ten categories of trauma experienced in childhood: three categories of abuse, two of neglect, and five related to growing up in a “seriously dysfunctional household”.

These last five included witnessing domestic violence; having divorced parents; having family members who had been in jail, had mental illness, or had substance abuse problems. In poor neighborhoods, there are more dysfunctional households. So it’s not just the individual home, but the neighborhood environment that reinforces toxic stress. The ACE categories are now regularly used in studies of school-aged children.

CSG: You’ve written about “grit”, or perseverance, as a success factor. Is this a non-cognitive ability?

PT: I wouldn’t separate non-cognitive and cognitive abilities that way. Neurobiology gives us another way of understanding the characteristics we want a child to have. Until recently, we didn’t know the biologic underpinnings. Abilities like grit, resilience, self-control, and so on are less like academic skills (which are taught) and more like psychological conditions that result from personal and environmental factors. For these positive habits to flourish, kids need to spend as much time as possible in environments where they feel a sense of belonging.

CSG: You have said that certain qualities necessary for success can’t be taught. What is your solution?

PT: This is not entirely true. I work on things like perseverance with my eight-year-old son, for example. But this alone is not the best way. The new generation of researchers – neuroscientists, psychologists, and economists – say qualities like perseverance or self-control are more like psychological states or mindsets, which means they’re mostly the product of a child’s environment. So if we want to help kids to persevere, we need first to figure out how to improve their environment, both at home and at school.

Another issue with viewing grit and self-control as skills: the pressure is on children to master them, like any other academic skill. But if we think of these qualities as byproducts of a child’s environment, then the pressure is on us, the adults surrounding that child. It’s our responsibility to figure out how to change a child’s environment in ways that will help him or her to succeed. It’s more fair, and more effective.

CSG: Where does this change need to start?

PT: In many places at once. In early childhood, interventions are easier and seem to show solid long-term effects: through home visits, sensitive handling of families, center-based care for kids. The most effective intervention we have is a focus on parental attachment, through a public policy of home visit programs, starting in the first days of a child’s life.

“The U.S. does not do enough: this is wrong-headed and counterproductive.”

In New York City, there’s a program called Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC), which uses coaches to encourage parents and foster parents to connect more with their young children. One study showed that after 10 ABC home visits with foster parents, the children in their care had higher rates of secure attachment, and their levels of the stress hormone cortisol mirrored those of typical, well-cared-for non-foster children.

With a nurturing environment in the home, infants develop the sense of security and self-confidence that will help them when as children they start to explore the world independently. But these programs are endangered in the U.S., with so many cuts on the table for early childhood programs. The U.S. does not do enough: this is wrong-headed and counterproductive.

Paul Tough writes about education, parenting, poverty, and politics for various publications in the U.S. His book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, was translated into 27 languages and spent more than a year on the New York Times best-seller list. His latest book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why is available here.