Toxic Stress in Schoolchildren

Originally published in Greater Park Hill News

March 4th, 2019

By Erin Pier

When Children Are Surviving, But Not Thriving

Think about the last time you encountered a stressful situation. Maybe you had to swerve to avoid the guy who cut you off in traffic. Maybe you lost sight of your child at the grocery store. Without thinking, your body immediately reacted to the stress: your heart rate quickened, your palms sweat, you started breathing faster and your body tensed. Your fight-or-flight survival response was triggered, without you even knowing it.

When your brain perceives danger, it triggers the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The increase in these hormones leads to a rapid heart rate, faster breath, and tightened muscles, preparing your body to fight for your life or run away, fast. This response has been foundational in the evolution of humankind. Without it, our early ancestors would have been eaten alive, and we would have died out long ago.

Children who endure Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as domestic violence, economic hardship, separation/divorce of parents, parental incarceration, familial mental illness and substance abuse, or physical/emotional abuse and neglect, are at an increased risk for developing toxic stress. That means their bodies are in an almost perpetual state of fight-or-flight.

Constant activation of the stress response system causes the body to operate with higher than normal levels of stress hormone, which, over time, actually changes the structure of the brain, affecting learning, memory, behavior and physical and mental health.

Students affected by one or more ACEs may have trouble forming relationships with teachers, experience negative thinking and hyper-vigilance, and have difficulty with executive function (i.e. attention, organization, planning, emotional control), which directly impacts a child’s ability to benefit from instruction in the classroom. These students require explicit teaching to develop “thinking” coping skills. Without such intervention, they are far less likely to be ready to learn.

Additionally, when economic hardship is reported, the risk of encountering two or more ACEs in childhood goes up significantly. The more ACEs endured, the higher the risk of developing toxic stress and other long-term consequences.

Assuming that students who qualify for free and/or reduced price lunch (FRL) experience economic hardship, the likelihood of children in our Park Hill schools reporting two or more ACEs is high.

With over 90 percent of the students at both Hallett Academy and Smith Elementary School qualifying for FRL, toxic stress is a component of equity that desperately requires our attention. All teachers need supports for their students who experience ACEs. But teachers serving significantly more students suffering from toxic stress, compared to more affluent DPS schools, need a different set of skills and a higher level of supports to be able to meet the needs of their students.

In addition to better training our teachers to understand the effects of toxic stress, we need qualified mental health providers to fill the roles of school counselors, social workers, and school psychologists.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one full-time counselor per 250 students, one social worker for 400 students, and one school psychologist for 500 to 700 students. In Greater Park Hill, none of our schools employ all three mental health providers, and most providers work only part-time in these buildings.

Due to overall lack of funding for our schools, DPS hires interns to serve many schools. While these hires are more than likely qualified and capable, they are also learning without direct, on-site supervision and often only remain in school communities for one year. While this approach is budget-friendly, it also leads to annual turnover and inconsistency for students most at-risk. Meanwhile, schools with less need and more access to resources are able to buy experienced providers, and maintain consistent, key relationships for students in crisis.

Toxic stress is more prevalent where poverty is more concentrated. It changes the development of the brain and furthers academic achievement gaps. And the schools it affects the most are often least able to provide pivotal mental health resources. Our children are surviving, not thriving. It’s time we look at toxic stress and the toll it takes on the mind and body for what it is: an equity issue.