One of the most frustrating aspects of many school reforms efforts of the past several decades is the intense focus on test scores with far less attention, if any, on the personal experiences that students bring to the classroom and how those who have suffered chronic stress are affected.

The rise of social-emotional learning in recent years has been seen as a move toward embracing the idea of dealing with the whole child in school, but many SEL programs don’t use trauma-informed instruction.

This post summarizes a new report on how chronic stress affects students, especially African American children and those from low-income families. The report is a joint effort of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit that works to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussion, and the Opportunity Institute, an education-focused nonprofit that promotes social mobility and equity by improving outcomes from early childhood through early career.

The report was written by Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein, and the post below was penned by Morsy. She is a research association at EPI and co-author of several studies on student outcomes. Rothstein is a fellow at EPI and author of some seminal reports and books, including “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.”

By Leila Morsy

Education reform efforts continue to focus mostly on how higher quality teaching can overcome social and economic challenges. Yet, these efforts have failed to make a meaningful difference in the achievement gap between black and white children. In part, this continued reform focus on in-class factors is the result of a failure to understand the pathways by which social and economic disadvantage contributes to depressed academic performance and behavioral outcomes and greater health morbidities.

In a new report co-authored by Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein, and co-published by the Economic Policy Institute and the Opportunity Institute, “Toxic Stress and Children’s Outcomes,” we argue that educators and policymakers should pay greater attention to the contribution of “toxic stress” — a dysregulated physiological stress reaction that arises in response to frightening and threatening experiences — to the achievement gap.

Stress is a natural bodily response to frightening or threatening life events. A normal stress response triggers the release of hormones that can affect almost every organ in the body. When events are of lesser severity, they induce “tolerable stress.” Such stress can be productive and can heighten a person’s focus on the stressor without distraction. Stress can also be tolerable when protective emotional support systems are in place.

But when frightening or threatening situations occur too frequently, or when they are not mitigated by sufficient protective factors, the hormonal response can become dysregulated and toxic. When a stress response becomes toxic, it can result in decreased performance.

Examples of frightening or threatening experiences — also referred to as “adverse childhood experiences” (ACES) — that can produce toxic stress because they are severe, frequent or sustained are:

  • psychological, physical and sexual abuse
  • having a parent or close family member be incarcerated
  • witnessing domestic violence; physical or emotional neglect
  • family financial hardship
  • homelessness
  • exposure to neighborhood violence
  • discrimination
  • parental divorce or separation
  • placement in foster care or kinship care
  • property loss or damage from a fire or burglary
  • having a family member become seriously ill or injured, be hospitalized, or die.

Such experiences are not evenly distributed across children. Low-income children and African American children are more likely to experience frightening and threatening events, in part because African American families fall disproportionately lower in the income distribution compared with white children.

For African American children, frightening and threatening experiences are compounded by the injuries of discrimination at school and elsewhere, which help explain why toxic stress is more common among low income black children than among low income children generally.

Children exposed to frequent or sustained frightening or threatening events that are likely to induce toxic stress do worse academically. For example, the share of children who have below-average reading and math skills is more than 70 percent and nearly 80 percent greater, respectively, for those who have been exposed to frightening or threatening experiences than for those who were otherwise similar but who have not been exposed to any frightening or threatening experiences.

Such children also do worse behaviorally. The share of children who display attention problems in the classroom is over 200 percent greater for those who have been exposed to frightening or threatening life experiences than for those who are otherwise similar but with no such experiences

Toxic Stress and Children’s Outcomes” compiles research showing that children exposed to frightening or threatening experiences are at greater risk of worse health outcomes than children not exposed to such experiences.

For example, we report that the share of children suffering from viral infections is 73 percent greater for children who have been exposed to frightening or threatening experiences than for otherwise similar children with no such childhood experiences. The share of children suffering from obesity is close to 45 percent greater for children who have been exposed to frightening or threatening experiences than for otherwise similar children with no such childhood experiences. The share of teenage girls who became pregnant is more than twice as great for those who have had frightening or threatening experiences than for those who have not and were otherwise similar.

Exposure to frightening or threatening events does not necessarily result in a toxic stress response. By enabling a child to respond constructively to emotions and situations, and manage their behavior, some factors can be protective — a child’s neighborhood, family, or school conditions, for instance — and reduce susceptibility to developing a toxic stress response.

In our report, we recommend social workers, educators, and health care practitioners implement or carefully expand evidence-based interventions that strengthen protective factors to mitigate children’s stress response or reduce their exposure to frightening or threatening events.

While we do not believe schools alone can fix the injuries of poverty, discrimination, and segregation, there are promising school-based approaches that can offset some of the damaging effects of toxic stress on children’s outcomes.

We suggest all school and preschool staff receive training to understand how exposure to frightening and threatening events can affect children’s behavior and academic performance. Adults in educational settings can learn, for instance, how to de-escalate a student’s unproductive behavior by emotionally connecting with the child and removing the child from the overwhelming context before redirecting the child toward schoolwork.

Our report further recommends that high-quality support for parents and parents-to-be be made more accessible. Support programs such as home visits and/or therapy services by community health workers, nurses and other health specialists can offset the damaging effects of exposure to frightening or threatening conditions by building the capacity of caregivers to provide children with safe, stable and nurturing relationships that help to develop children’s adaptive and positive coping skills.

An example of such an initiative is The Nurse Family Partnership, a program in which registered nurses visit women before and after childbirth, help coordinate physician and hospital visits and provide guidance on healthy behavior during and following pregnancy.

These visits contribute to improving parent — child interactions, decrease the risk of child maltreatment and generally contribute to improving children’s environments. In doing so, home visits create conditions that protect children from developing toxic stress.

As health care professionals have started to turn their attention to this important problem, so should educators. Greater public awareness of this insidious morbidity can help us better understand the persistence of achievement gaps by race and income and point the way to policy that can address these gaps.

Here’s the full report: