Director's Corner: On Stress

It is now a known fact that stress affects our ability to function and be efficient and productive (not to mention pleasant) by directly affecting our brain chemistry, and that sustained stress can result in permanent damage. The scary thing is that, when kids grow up under pervasive stress—whether stemming from abuse,neglect, or long acute illness in the family, or from more insidious causes such as poverty, discrimination, or bullying—it can actually hamper the physical development of their brain. And the part most impaired is the prefrontal cortex, i.e. the part most involved in regulating behavior and thoughts. The link between stress and achievement has been studied for a long time in the context of discrimination: how being subjected to stereotypes of lower intellectual ability actually causes lower achievement; it has also been studied in the context of learning disabilities: how repeated adult put-downs lead to learned helplessness and compounded failure in learning-disabled kids mistakenly viewed as "lazy" or "oppositional;" and it continues to be studied in the context of poverty, with now an emphasis on prevention.

Writer Paul Tough addresses these issues in his latest book, "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character." Reviewing the work of neuroscientists, psychologists, educators and economists, he argues that life success has more to do with skills such as perseverance, conscientiousness, curiosity and self-control than with higher scores on academic tests. Impaired self-control such as caused by early stress thus jeopardizes chances for life success. The good news is that the prefrontal cortex is one of the more flexible parts of the brain, and thus can be "re-trained" through adequate nurturing and the teaching of positive work habits and self-control.

The Magnolia School is not claiming to implement sophisticated psychological interventions to "teach" grit, curiosity and character, but we do feel that Paul Tough's book somewhat vindicates our educational philosophy, aimed at cultivating curiosity and taking personal and emotional growth seriously. In a previous Director's Corner, we talked about the danger of over-inflated self-esteem. Today we talk about the danger of over-depressed self-esteem due to early stress. What we can do to avoid it is keep the stress level low in our children's life and build their resilience and their curiosity.