The Other 60 Percent

Research traces impact of childhood adversity

The stress of a spelling bee or a challenging science project can enhance a student’s focus and promote learning. But the stress of a dysfunctional or unstable home life can poison a child’s cognitive ability for a lifetime, according to new research.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, spoke last month to Colorado policymakers and children’s advocates. Photo courtesy of <em>Solutions</em>.

While educators and psychologists have said for decades that the effects of poverty interfere with students’ academic achievement, new evidence from cognitive and neuroscience is showing exactly how adversity in childhood damages students’ long-term learning and health.

Those studies show that stress forms the link between childhood adversity and poor academic achievement, but that not all adversity — or all stress — is bad for students.

“Children from their earliest life need to learn how to manage adversity,” such as dealing with the first day of school, said Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, in Cambridge, Mass.

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Research from Dr. Shonkoff’s center and from other experts finds that positive stress — the kind that comes from telling a toddler he can’t have a cookie or a teenager that she’s about to take a pop quiz — causes a brief rise in heart rate and stress hormones. A jolt can focus a student’s attention and is generally considered healthy.

Similarly, a child can tolerate stress that is severe but may be relatively short-term — from the death of a loved one, for example — as long as he or she has support.

“Adults help children develop strategies to help cope with these stressors,” Dr. Shonkoff said. “Whether it’s reading or managing stress, adults provide the scaffolding for children to build those skills themselves.”

‘Toxic’ recipe

By contrast, so-called “toxic stress” is severe, sustained, and not buffered by supportive relationships.

The same brain flexibility, called plasticity, that makes children open to learning in their early years also makes them particularly vulnerable to damage from the toxic stressors that often accompany poverty: high mobility and homelessness; hunger and food instability; parents who are in jail or absent; domestic violence; drug abuse; and other problems, according to Pat Levitt, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Southern California and the director of the neuroscience graduate program at the Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles.

Both Mr. Levitt and Dr. Shonkoff are part of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, which is studying the effects of environment on children’s health and cognitive development.

Good experiences, like nurturing parents and rich early-child-care environments, help build and reinforce neural connections in areas such as language development and self-control, while adversity weakens those connections.

Over time, the connections, good or bad, stabilize, “and you can’t go back and rewire; you have to adapt,” Dr. Shonkoff said. “If you’ve built on strong foundations, that’s good, and if you have weak foundations, the brain has to work harder, and it costs more to the brain and society.”

For example, a study in the October issue of the peer-reviewed journal Child Development found that out of more than 26,000 students in the Minneapolis public schools, those who moved more than three times a year had significantly lower mathematics achievement and academic growth than students with more stable homes.

In a separate study, Richard P. Barth, the dean and a professor of social work at the University of Maryland College Park, found children with six or more adverse experiences before age 3 were overwhelmingly likely to be identified as needing special education for developmental delay.

Self-control or trust?

Moreover, a child’s ability to delay gratification and control him- or herself — often seen as a personality trait critical for academic success — can be hugely dependent on the child’s sense of stability in the environment and trust in surrounding adults.

In a twist on the classic Stanford University “marshmallow experiment,” in which young children’s ability to resist eating a marshmallow was tested to show their self-control, researchers led by Celeste Kidd, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester in New York, recently found children who trusted the word of the adult tester and felt their environment was more stable waited four times as long for a treat as those who felt more insecure.

The effects of early stress can linger for decades and go well beyond learning difficulties.

“What happens in childhood, like a child’s footprint in wet cement, leaves its mark forever,” said Dr. Vincent J. Felitti, the director of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study at the health-care provider Kaiser Permanente’s department of preventive medicine in San Diego.

Known as the ACE study and done in collaboration with Dr. Robert F. Anda at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the project analyzed longitudinal data on more than 17,400 middle-class adults in the Kaiser Permanente system.

Participants reported whether, as children, they had experienced repeated physical, sexual or severe emotional abuse, and whether they had grown up with any of five types of “household dysfunction”: a family member in prison; domestic violence; an alcoholic or drug abuser in the home; someone in the home who was depressed, mentally ill, or suicidal; or loss of at least one biological parent during childhood for any reason.

Adversity, decades later

As it turned out, more than half the adults had had at least one type of severe abuse or home dysfunction in childhood, and one in 16 had experienced four or more. The number of traumatic childhood experiences, Dr. Felitti found, was directly proportional to a person’s risk of a wide variety of major medical and social problems, from teenage pregnancy and drug abuse to adult heart disease and hepatitis.

“These results are almost unique in their magnitude,” Dr. Felitti said. A boy with six indicators of abuse and home dysfunction was 4,600 percent more likely than a boy with no risk factors to become an intravenous-drug user, according to the study.

Such findings mean that teachers and doctors are left trying to fix late symptoms, like poor reading skills or boredom in school, rather than underlying issues that occur much earlier in life.

“The science [on the effects of poverty and stress] has exploded in the last 25 years, but the policy on the delivery of child care has stalled, without anything close to similar progress,” Dr. Shonkoff said.

While federal and state education programs typically focus on academic remediation and nutrition for disadvantaged students, “for some kids, no matter how well you do that, it’s not enough, because the amount of adversity in their lives overwhelms,” he said.

“It’s asking too much,” Dr. Shonkoff said, “to require parent education and an enriched preschool program to counteract the effects of the level of adversity in some kids’ lives that is whipping up their stress-response systems.”

Researchers, including Mr. Levitt of USC and Dr. Felitti, are starting to explore new interventions, both medical and cognitive, that might protect children’s developing brains from damage caused by stress and improve their ability to cope.

So far, there are no classroom-ready techniques beyond developing supportive relationships between teachers and parents and their children, Mr. Levitt said. “Helping people after the fact is really nibbling at the edges of the problems,” Dr. Felitti said during a presentation on the research at the Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans last month. “We need a polio vaccine, as opposed to buying bigger and better iron lungs.”

“Stress is not something you get a lot of sympathy for,” Dr. Shonkoff said in a separate interview at the Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness meeting in Washington. “This is a culture that says suck it up and get over it.”

But in reality, Dr. Felitti concluded, “the [ACE] study makes it clear that time does not heal some of the adverse experiences we found so common. … One does not ‘just get over’ some things, not even 50 years later.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Read this story on the EdWeek site, including links to videos.

Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where instruction in Spanish is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.