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Toxic Stress

Research by experts at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University shows that poverty can cause prolonged activation of the body’s stress response. When stress hormones like cortisol are released continuously in children’s developing bodies and brains, they can have damaging effects on learning, behavior, and overall health. When this happens, experts call it “toxic stress.”

But when children receive nurturing from their parents or other caring adults, and know they can rely on them in times of stress, the damaging effects of toxic stress are alleviated, and children develop in a healthy way.

Find out more about Toxic Stress

Developing Character or Grit

Paul Tough, New York Times journalist and author of How Children Succeed, investigated what makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful children. He found that it isn’t their environment or even cognitive skills, but character traits like “grit”—the capacity for determination even in the face of adversity. And character traits are typically developed at home. In the book, he wrote:

“There is a particularly effective antidote to the
ill effects of early stress, and it comes not from
pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood
educators but from parents. Parents and other
caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing
relationships with their children can foster resilience
in them that protects them from many of the worst
effects of a harsh early environment. The effect of
good parenting is not just emotional or psychological,
the neuro-scientists say; it is biochemical.”

Executive Function

Children also need steadily developing executive function skills to succeed in school. “To learn anything you have to have some control over your own behavior and attention,” says McKnight University researcher Ann Masten, a pioneer in the study of individual resilience and the impact of homelessness (“Nurturing Resilience: Helping Homeless Children Overcome Setbacks,” by Greg Breining, Connect, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota, Summer 2011).

Masten’s work focuses on what leads to resilience in children developing under stress. She has identified two factors that improve school readiness: good executive function and good parenting skills (warmth, involvement, structure). The two appear to be interrelated: Kids with better executive function skills showed fewer physiological signs of stress. They also tend to have parents who are good self-regulators. “Parents model, they support, they scaffold the development of [executive function] skills,” Masten says.

What the Research Tells Us