Researchers know that chronic neglect or abuse in the home can cause toxic stress. But there are also other more subtle causes of toxic stress like ongoing marital strife between parents, chronic maternal depression, and very toxic we now know, poverty. Some types of stress are tolerable, but other types are considered “toxic”.
To understand these two types of stress, tolerable and toxic, it’s helpful to begin with an explanation of the brain’s stress mechanism. For these purposes we can separate the brain into two major divisions. We are all familiar with the advanced thinking part of the brain – the cerebrum. When we conjure an image of the human brain, it is the cerebrum we picture.
But beneath that part of our brain is a more ‘body function’ oriented brain region that handles emotions, as well as basic body states like hunger and sleep. In that region there is the limbic system where emotions like fear, anger and joy are processed. Nearby is an area called the hypothalamus and a gland called the adrenal gland which work together to release hormones in response to emotions or other body states.
So what are the solutions to reducing stress for our children? Fortunately, they are more available than one might think.
1. Supportive role models and environments: Psychologists have found that access to at least one supportive adult in a child’s environment can markedly reduce the effects of toxic stress. That can be a coach, a relative, a religious figure or, in many cases, a teacher. In fact, if you talk to successful adults who had very difficult or stressful childhoods, or who overcame extreme poverty, they will often single out a teacher or two who served as role models, inspirations and supporters.
Not only can a supportive teacher provide a relief from toxic stress – the school itself can provide a safe haven as long as the child feels protected and respected. For that to occur, the student needs to be successful at learning, which is not easy for many students from unstable or low socioeconomic status environments because of the negative effects of stress on brain development. However, three available methodologies can help.
2. Adopt a growth mindset: We have learned that when students believe that intelligence is not fixed but rather ‘smarts’ can develop through the process of learning, called a “growth mindset”, achievement is significantly accelerated.
3. Relax: There is emerging evidence that brief periods of relaxation, meditation or yoga can relieve stress and have a positive effect on learning.
4. Build Cognitive and Literacy Skills: Finally, there are neuroscience-designed interventions that research indicates can specifically target and build those regions of the brain known to be important for learning, resulting in dramatic improvements in academic success. When students can achieve, school becomes a six-hour a day relief from a toxically stressful environment.