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Here’s the problem: For all our talk about noncognitive skills, nobody has yet found a reliable way to teach kids to be grittier or more resilient. And it has become clear, at the same time, that the educators who are best able to engender noncognitive abilities in their students often do so without really “teaching” these capacities the way one might teach math or reading—indeed, they often do so without ever saying a word about them in the classroom. This paradox has raised a pressing question for a new generation of researchers: Is the teaching paradigm the right one to use when it comes to helping young people develop noncognitive capacities?

What is emerging is a new idea: that qualities like grit and resilience are not formed through the traditional mechanics of “teaching”; instead, a growing number of researchers now believe, they are shaped by several specific environmental forces, both in the classroom and in the home, sometimes in subtle and intricate ways.

The process begins in early childhood, when the most important force shaping the development of these skills turns out to be a surprising one: stress. Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity how severe and chronic stress in childhood—what doctors sometimes call toxic stress—leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop and, significantly, the way they function in school.

Each of us has within us an intricate stress-response network that links together the brain, the immune system, and the endocrine system (the glands that produce and release stress hormones). In childhood, and especially in early childhood, this network is highly sensitive to environmental cues; it is constantly looking for signals from a child’s surroundings that might tell it what to expect in the days and years ahead. 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.

In the short term, these adaptations may have benefits, especially in a dangerous environment. When your threat-detection system—sometimes referred to as your fight-or-flight response—is on high alert, you can react quickly to trouble. But in the longer term, they can cause an array of physiological problems and impede development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls our most complex intellectual functions, as well as our ability to regulate ourselves both emotionally and cognitively.


Source: How Kids Learn Resilience