A new, peer-reviewed paper suggests children who grow up in stressful environments may have strengths that educators and society are overlooking.
Over the past decade, the share of public-school students who live in poverty in Washington state has grown from about 37 percent in 2006 to 44 percent as of last year.
As that number rises, so too has the body of research showing the short- and long-term effects of living as a child in stressful environments. Studies have found, for example, that poor children achieve less, have more behavior problems and are less healthy than peers raised in wealthier families.
But for Vlad Griskevicius, a professor of marketing and psychology at the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota, such studies tell only half the story.
“There’s an assumption that when a child is born into the world, he is hoping for this wonderful, positive environment, like sunshine, and if he gets the sunshine, like a flower he’ll bloom and everything is great,” Griskevicius said.
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“But if there’s a thunderstorm going on when the child is born, and life is not so great, especially during the early years, then it damages the flower, and it’s never able to blossom.”
In a new paper published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, Griskevicius and his co-authors attempt to flip that narrative on its head.
Instead of asking “what’s wrong?” with children who come from harsh and unpredictable backgrounds — and attempting to prevent, reduce or repair the damage from such an upbringing — Griskevicius wants scientists, educators and society to focus on “what’s right with these kids.”
“For hundreds of thousands of years, humans were born into all kinds of environments, and many times it wasn’t sunny,” Griskevicius said.
“Why do we assume,” he asked, “only sunshine makes people positive?If we’re born into a tumultuous world, there’s reason to believe you will grow up and adapt to this world and thrive in it.”
In the paper, lead author Bruce Ellis, of the University of Utah, questions existing intervention strategies that aim to get children from high-risk backgrounds, such as living in poverty, to act and think more like youth from more stable backgrounds.
The traditional school system, for example, values students who can sit and pay attention for long periods of time. But Griskevicius noted that students from stressful environments may not do well in a quiet environment, or they may test poorly, act aggressively or have trouble reading.
“When that kid shows up to school, don’t assume they are deficient in everything important,” Griskevicius said. “Instead, they’re actually bringing a bunch of little strengths to the table that no one has discovered because no one’s looked in the right place.”
The authors acknowledge that, because research for the last several decades has focused on the “what’s wrong?” approach, there’s very little data on the potential benefits of a stressful childhood. But they cite other studies — of rodents, birds and humans — that suggest early exposure to stress can improve different forms of attention, perception, learning, memory and problem-solving.
“Our theory is if you’re born into an environment that is chaotic and unpredictable … there should be certain cognitive abilities that people should be particularly good at,” like switching between different tasks or taking opportunities, Griskevicius said.
Without much proof, however, Griskevicius and his co-authors urged the academic community to start doing studies to collect the appropriate data.
That ultimately may lead to some type of test that the authors believe could reveal the “hidden talents” of children who grow up with stress, which in turn can help the design of new programs that improve their chances for success in school, work and civic life.
Griskevicius compared his team’s theory with a different “nonradical thought” — that some people are visual learners, while others simply aren’t.
“That idea has been with us for a long time. This is another way to get at a similar idea, but it’s a little bit more profound,” Griskevicius said. “It says there are specific, positive things about kids who experience negative life events as they grow up.”