Call me crazy, but yesterday I picked up the latest, golden-colored Atlantic magazine with a picture of the Donald on the cover. “The Mind of Donald Trump” is the cover story, all about how a psychologist would dissect the Trump brain, what makes him tick. Since he had recently entered my dream life, yes folks, Donald gave me six million dollars for a book deal, In. My. Dreams., I figured I owed myself a reckoning. But I didn’t read that story, I read the one about kids, and achievement, and toxic stress. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/how-kids-really-succeed/480744/
It seems we are now a country with more than 50% of children living below the poverty line, requiring free or reduced lunches at public schools. Once I got over that shocker, I read on…educators are looking beyond standardized test scores to predict why some poor kids fail and some thrive in school. They are looking into the character traits that contribute to a child’s academic success…
“…often referred to as noncognitive skills, or character strengths—that include resilience, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, and grit. These capacities generally aren’t captured by our ubiquitous standardized tests, but they seem to make a big difference in the academic success of children, especially low-income children.”
In other words, who has true grit? Lo and behold, research has shown that this stuff cannot exactly be taught. It takes a combination of forces, all environmental (although if you ask me, nature plays an important role here as well) that combine in the right way during early childhood, and can be enhanced by a certain pedagogy. And most importantly, if a child is raised with “toxic stress,” he or she will adapt to school in a way that makes learning nearly impossible. They will close off and become “behavior” problems.
Toxic stress is defined as severe and chronic stress, the kind a child living in poverty is more likely to encounter. Is it safe for them to play in the street, or walk to school? Do they see loved ones routinely, are they consistent when they do ? Are they hungry, can they sleep at night? Are their needs being met? Imagine a child growing up in Syria, or Chicago. Stress baths a developing brain with all the wrong signals.
In a way, they are learning not to trust the world, or anyone in it.
“When those signals suggest that life is going to be hard, the network reacts by preparing for trouble: raising blood pressure, increasing the production of adrenaline, heightening vigilance. Neuroscientists have shown that children living in poverty experience more toxic stress than middle-class children, and that additional stress expresses itself in higher blood pressure and higher levels of certain stress hormones.”
Yesterday I also got a note from the Bride telling me that a certain Principal was moving from their neighborhood school to a magnet school. Yes, in Nashville there are public elementary schools where one can be immersed in Chinese and learn to stand and speak in class, into a microphone, with impunity. Students grow their own veggies and feed into the very best high school. The problem is getting into those schools is a matter of luck – it’s a lottery system. Which in my mind seems cruel and unusual.
It’s one thing to abandon “No Child Left Behind,” which arguably didn’t work anyway, but then to offer the best practices at only some schools in the country is a piecemeal approach to the problem. Fostering a feeling of belonging, a willingness to learn and resilience almost always comes down to each individual teacher.
Let’s train and teach our educators, ALL of them, to foster true grit in their classrooms. Failure is OK, keep trying. Don’t say to the boys who sit at the back of the class with their caps pulled down covering their eyes, “We know who the losers are in this class.” Let’s make every school magnetic, with high expectations for every student and : “…less lecture time; fewer repetitive worksheets; more time spent working in small groups, solving problems, engaging in discussions, and collaborating on long-term creative projects. It’s a style of teaching and classroom organization that is relatively common in independent schools and in wealthy suburbs but quite unusual in inner-city public schools.”
School is almost out for the summer. It’s time to raise a child who feels her or his world is a safe place. Let’s work on our children’s resilience this year, a little indomitable spirit never hurt anyone. It’s takes a piece of grit to create a pearl. Yesterday, the sun came out.
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