We all know the story by now.
The State of Michigan decided to save money by changing the source of water to a town called Flint from the pristine Lake Huron to the Flint River. Corrosive agents in the water went untreated, and lead leached from pipes into the water supply.
Children tested had high levels of lead in their bloodstreams, a known neurotoxin with long-term effects. The poison disproportionately impacted children of color — Flint’s population was 56.6 percent African American in 2014 — and poor children.
Now, what if you knew that there was a similar situation playing out in homes and schools that you walk by every day even without exposure to neurotoxins? That environmental factors are causing chemicals to course through people that harm brain development, causing behavioral issues and leading to adult diseases such as obesity and heart disease? That the most disadvantaged among us are kept there, not by lack of willpower or work ethic, but by evolution and biology?
Researchers of childhood development coined the term “toxic stress” to describe the situation where human evolutionary “fight or flight” response doesn’t turn off, instead flooding the system with a chemical called cortisol.
When cortisol levels spike but come back down, it’s healthy and normal. When people, particularly children, can’t turn it off, its poisonous effects can last a lifetime.
It’s something that Heather Post, a juvenile detention case manager with YouthCare in King County, sees every day in children coming out of the jail system.
Lead and asbestos are bad for children, and the government goes to great lengths to measure and eliminate them from the environment, she said.
“But we have toxic stress that’s a substance every bit as bad,” Post said. “The effort to get rid of it is not on the same level as lead or asbestos.”
Time for a biology lesson
The architecture of the brain is built in a dynamic process over the course of time, with a massive amount of activity occurring when children are young. According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, very young children’s brains grow between 700 and 1,000 new neural connections every second.
Elevated and sustained stress hormones early in life actually reduce the number of connections in critical areas of the brain that help with learning and reasoning. The connections that remain are generally weaker.
If neural development weren’t enough, positive and negative experiences determine which genes get expressed in brain cells, causing changes that can be either temporary or permanent through a process called epigenetic modification.
In short, our ability to deal with negative experiences when we are too young to know who we are has a massive impact on who we will become.
“Toxic stress” is a term de arte because the underlying hormone — cortisol — is also present in “positive stress.” It’s not the stress itself that is toxic, but the amount of stress and the duration, said Dr. Megan Gunnar, director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.
A caring relationship with an adult buffers children from stress, helping them bring stress levels down and learn to control them. That process develops a healthy stress-response system that serves the child well as an adult.
Toxic stress is the body’s response to “frequent or prolonged adversity.” That could mean physical or emotional abuse, but research also points to neglect and the “accumulated burdens of family economic hardship.”
Being poor, not knowing where your next meal is coming from, growing up in a dangerous neighborhood — all of these factors can contribute to the buildup of stress hormones in the body.
That made sense when we evolved. Releasing sugar into the blood stream for a quick getaway and having brains that jumped to an “act now, think later” response kept us alive, Gunnar said: “Now we live in an information society. Now we need to go to school. What made sense with our evolution and environment comes into conflict with our environment [now].”
A study conducted in Spokane on 2,000 elementary school students scored children on the number of “adverse childhood experiences” they’d had so far in their short lives. The higher the score, the more negative things had happened to them.
As the score rose, so did the chances of academic failure, attendance problems, severe behavioral concerns and chronic health problems when compared with children who had not had to deal with such events.
That’s hardly surprising, YouthCare’s Post said.
We’ve all had days when something terrible has happened, when we stare at our computers and can’t get anything done, she said. For these kids, every day is like that.
“They’re at school, they can’t concentrate, they don’t have the skills that an adult would to communicate that,” Post said.“It’s a reinforcement of that school-to-prison pipeline. They’re getting expelled, falling out and funneled into the juvenile justice system when the root problem isn’t their behavior, it’s the circumstances in their lives.” Local government and institutions in the Seattle/King County area are preparing major investments to try to disrupt this cycle.
King County voters approved the Best Start for Kids levy, which promises $400 million between 2017 and 2021 to help children from cradle through adolescence. The implementation plan, sent to County Council on June 1, recommends front-loading almost half of that money (roughly $185 million) to support pregnant mothers, educate new families and care for children between infancy and five years of age.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced an Equity and Environment Action Agenda on Earth Day to empower communities of color and low-income areas to identify and fix things that put them at a disadvantage, such as a lack of public transportation, deficit of jobs and opportunity or access to fresh food.
The Seattle Public Schools launched a pilot program called RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating) developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to support its students in their academics, but also their emotional development.
“If they’re bored, if they’re distracted, if they’re depressed, they won’t be ready to learn no matter how beneficial the lesson may be,” said Helen Walsh, the RULER coordinator at the district.
The program was so successful at South Shore School in Rainier Beach, where it debuted, that the district opened it up to 10 additional schools only to find that 23 wanted to sign on, Walsh said. Another 25 started the process this year and 11 more will join in the near future.
The shift in institutional culture to focus on these issues is a good sign, in Post’s eyes, because it’s changing the conversation from one around delinquent youth to a recognition of the impact of trauma and stress on the developing child. Those are the children she’s working with, the kids who never got to be kids, and, if the system doesn’t change, the young adults who will continue to be penalized by society.
But Post and her fellow case managers get to see them differently, outside the context of poverty, stress and neglect.
“We get to do things with the youth as case managers, like take them sailing, go to the zoo, the aquarium,” she said. “Activities like that that for a couple hours, a short moment, these youth that have had it very hard get to be kids again.
“They forget all of that for a short amount of time.”