Helping Students Overcome Toxic Stress through Science-Based Teaching

Helping Students Overcome Toxic Stress through Science-Based Teaching

At KIPP DC Quest Academy in Washington, D.C., teacher Randy Whetzel and his student Khamari are playing a relaxed game of Uno. The mood is light-hearted and companionable. As they compete, their banter is punctuated by the slap of cards on the table.

Khamari meets with Whetzel every day for some one-on-one time, which research shows can build trust with youngsters who are troubled or struggling in school and help them succeed at school. “We talk about, like, football and, you know — personal stuff in our life,” says Khamari, with a quick smile at his teacher. “I feel less stress because I can control my anger now. When I get mad, I know how to calm myself down.”

The key to the program’s success? Consistency.

“What our students really crave the most is predictability from the adults interacting with them,” says Roger Sapp, a student success teacher at KIPP. For that reason, the one-on-one session is not a reward for being “good” or withheld if something bad happens. The kids who need it can count on it – every day.

The scene is from a video by Edutopia (aka the George Lucas Educational Foundation), which has produced a series of more than 20 powerful, engaging shorts on how children learn in collaboration with several organizations devoted to education and learning  (see below). The series – How Learning Happens – features  Linda Darling-Hammond, Ed.D., president and CEO of Learning Policy Institute, and Pamela Cantor, MD, founder and senior science advisor of Turnaround for Children. With vivid storytelling and animations, the series shows us teaching practices grounded in the science of learning and development.

Scientists used to think that children’s brains finished developing by age six, but they realize now that was a myth: Brains keep on developing well into our twenties! Since our brain responds to changes in its environment, children who face stress or abuse at home, for example, will often switch into “fight or flight” mode to protect themselves.

This means that over time, as Edutopia explains, “the brain’s circuitry rewires, favoring aggressive or anxious tendencies at the cost of cognition, reasoning, and memory.”

The good news? In a positive school climate of trust and security, children’s brain can be rewired for the better.

For children who’ve experienced toxic stress from abuse, neglect, divorce and other Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), this approach is invaluable.

“Stress will make it very difficult for children to listen, to focus, and to learn,” says Pamela Cantor, M.D., the senior science advisor and founder of Turnaround for Children, in the video. “But there is a powerful antidote to stress, and that is the effect of the human relationship and the presence of trust. One-on-one time is a great opportunity for a child to be with an adult where they can feel seen, known, soothed and cared about. That opens up the door to learning.”

Overcoming toxic stress

That certainly has been the case with Khamari, who his teacher says has thrived with one on one time. “It’s definitely working academically,” Wentzel says in the video. “He’s spending more time in the classroom; his grades have gone up, and he’s more willing to communicate.”

This comes as no surprise to Linda Darling Hammond, Ed.D., president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute. In the video series, she explains the importance of a positive school climate that offers long-term secure relationships. These support academic, physical, cognitive, social and emotional development –- an approach known as “whole child education” — that can help children overcome toxic stress and trauma.

You might think our school system is already using this science-based approach, but the truth is, many — perhaps most – U.S. schools are not. After all, school paddlings — an abusive practice banned in most of the developed world — are still legal in some states. As Cantor has explained, “The 20th-century education system was never designed with the knowledge of the developing brain.”

Research shows that even simple changes like greeting children at the school door with a smile or high-five can work wonders. And this is what makes the series so exciting. It’s not just about improving schools for everyone – although the teaching practices it showcases certainly will. It’s about helping solve a major public health crisis: the impact of childhood adversity and trauma, which can harm children’s brain chemistry, immune system, and mental and physical health over a lifetime if left unaddressed.

Best of all, the teaching practices that the videos showcase are not expensive. They don’t require grants or expensive technology. And they can be easily incorporated in almost any school or home. Kids need trust, safety and a feeling of connection to thrive in school and in life. And as the series demonstrates, even a daily hug or high five from a teacher can make a difference.


Edutopia developed this series in collaboration with the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, with support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; with special thanks to the Science of Learning and Development Initiative, Turnaround for ChildrenLearning Policy InstituteAmerican Institutes for Research, and EducationCounsel.