Right now I am trying, desperately trying, to finalize bullet points for a short presentation I’m giving Thursday on stress and the education system. Instead of nicely polishing my documents and printing the flyers I’m handing out, I’m sitting here in tears. Again. This is not the first time this project has made me sort of lose it. Thankfully I have waterproof mascara for the day of, because I’m pretty sure I’ll be losing it halfway through the presentation.
Here’s why. First, you need to know about the ACE study done by Kaiser Permanente. They were looking for a way to accurately predict the onset of certain chronic conditions that were high-cost to maintain, like diabetes, heart disease, and some kinds of mental illnesses. They did a survey that covered every aspect of people’s lives. Work, diet, family life, childhood, education, etc, etc, etc. What they found was a direct correlation between what they termed “Adverse Childhood Experiences” and people’s health later in life. Your mother was a drug addict? Here, have a nice depression and eating disorder! Your dad beat your mom in front of you? Would you like a spicy heart disease and obesity with that? It seemed counter-intuitive, so they conducted more studies to see why there would be a connection like that. It led to major breakthroughs in how stress affects brain chemistry. While occasional stress may actually heighten brain function, boost immunity, and help people survive the upsets of life, long-term stress is like a poison that there is no antidote for. It changes the way the brain functions, killing short-term memory, deadening emotions, and hampering immune function. This is especially dangerous for young people whose brains are still developing. Brain scans of a child who experienced abuse at home compared to that of a child raised in a stable environment are just chilling.
So when you look at chronic stress and the educational environment, there are a lot of things to consider. One is that teachers are more likely to feel forced to have “interventions” (disciplinary action) for students who seem distracted, whose grades are falling, or who are in the system because they have a personal educational plan or there has been law enforcement involvement with their family. Those students, perhaps ironically, are the ones who are least likely to benefit from disciplinary action. Why? Their amygdala is swollen, they have too much adrenaline and cortisol in their system, they are afraid of authority figures and they feel defeated by life. Rather than stopping negative behaviors, making those students feel on edge is likely to just cause more. Schools who replace disciplinary interventions with the “compassionate” alternative of simply asking why a student is looking at their phone or not completing work and if they are experiencing any kind of stress find they have far better outcomes. Of course they would! If the school environment becomes a combative or stress filled one because of constant discipline or failure or some kind of combination of the two, the student is more likely to fight or freeze than to actually become engaged.
The problem is that teachers are looking at the issue from the perspective of someone who isn’t under constant stress and thinking of how they would respond, not their students.
The school district I will end up working for, in all likelihood, has 75% Hispanic students and 85% of all students receiving free lunches, which means that 85% of the students are in poverty and 75% of students may come from a home where English is not the primary language. Many of those students have parents who are in back-breaking work situations. You have 12 year old kids who raise their younger siblings while their parents work. Kids who have family who have been deported and they’ll never see again. Kids whose parents are using or selling drugs. Kids who find school to be incredibly stressful because they are still unable to understand all of what is going on.
When you look at how the schools are doing with meeting learning targets, the outlook is dismal.
Of course it is.
People like to say things like, “the United States gives everyone an opportunity to make something of themselves.”
Mmhm. But think of what a student can make of themselves if they had a traumatic stress disorder by the time they were 3, if their language development was nipped in the bud and they have been behind the class from day 1, being pushed and pushed by a teacher desperate to make them succeed to save their own job. Traumatized at home, traumatized at school, doomed for failure from the time of their birth.
Right now these issues are gaining awareness, but they are far from being addressed.
And I’m going to give a short talk on it for the final in my Critical Race Theory class, because I’m a sap. I’m a sap who’ll break down in tears.
We like to say we’re past all of this, that latinos and blacks and everybodies are all equal in our society, while we walk around blissfully unaware of the privileges some people have just because they were born into stable homes.
But in all reality? We’re all cursed. You know that ACE study, that was trying to figure out how insurance companies could save more money? Most of the participants were white men in their 40s and 50s.
It’s a big boat, folks. We need to start acting like we’re in it together.