Strategies to help students learn in toxic stress environments

In a recent blog, I wrote about UCLA Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion Tyrone C. Howard’s critique of educational theories that emphasize the importance of student “grit” and “growth mindset” for students in schools where toxic stress levels are endemic. Howard believes that many educators and schools lack the training to recognize the impact of trauma and stress on cognitive development and academic outcomes and are therefore ill-prepared to help students living in toxic stress environments develop positive learning habits.

In his latest book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, education writer Paul Tough doesn’t downplay the effect that adversity has on a child’s ability to learn. Tough writes:

“On a cognitive level, growing up in a chaotic and unstable environment – and experiencing the chronic elevated stress that such an environment produces – disrupts the development of a set of skills, controlled by the prefrontal cortex, known as executive functions: higher-order mental abilities that some researchers compare to a team of air traffic controllers overseeing the working of the brain.”

Tough also describes behavioral habits that are common in toxic stress environments – like “fight or flight response”- and describes how these negative habits can make teaching and learning extremely difficult. But while Tough acknowledges that students grappling with extreme adversity present unique challenges to educators who are trying to instill grit and growth mindset, he also offers examples of promising interventions educators have employed to help students succeed despite challenging circumstances. Examples include:

  • Stanford Professor Geoffrey Cohen’s “wise intervention” technique, which emphasizes strategic interactions that build trust between teachers and students by counteracting students’ fears that their teachers’ assessments of them are driven by stereotypes instead of their own individual abilities and achievements.
  • “Turnaround for Children,” a nonprofit organization that sends teams of behavioral experts into high-poverty schools to train teachers to de-escalate confrontations with and among students and create a climate that supports engagement and a sense of belonging among students.
  • EL Education, a national nonprofit network that embraces project-based learning models that give students more autonomy and encourage team building. According to a 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research, students at five urban EL middle schools outpaced their peers at comparable schools that do not offer project based learning. Some researchers theorize that the schools’ emphasis on group projects does not allow severely traumatized students to fade into the background as they might at traditional schools.
  • “Deeper Learning” pedagogical techniques that de-emphasize rote, lecture-based instruction in favor of presenting material in a way that promotes discussion, inquiry, peer critiques, revisions and project-based learning. This approach, long favored in affluent American schools, has not gained much currency in non-affluent schools that instead stress rule-following over problem-solving.

Tough also outlines a compelling argument questioning the effectiveness of “zero tolerance” discipline policies and offering incentives for academic achievements – approaches that have been staples of educational reform efforts of the past 20 years – for students grappling with toxic stress and trauma.

Tough recognizes that the kind of transformational changes that are necessary to help children living in adversity thrive will require more than mere adjustments of pedagogical practice. He argues that Americans need to prioritize helping children in toxic environments and support policy changes that forward that goal.

“Helping children in adversity to transcend their difficult circumstances is hard and often painful work. It can be depressing, discouraging – even infuriating. But what the research shows is that it can also make a tremendous difference, not only in the lives of individual children and their families, but in our communities and our nation as a whole.”

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