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Ask a Scientist: Can Early Educators Help a Child Suffering From Toxic Stress?

Geoffrey Nagle.pngTeaching early-education teachers about child development, including cognitive development, is a critical part of a strong background in education, said Geoffery Nagle, the president and CEO of Erikson Institute in Chicago. The institute is a graduate school, offering several advanced degree options in early-childhood education. In addition to serving about 275 students in Chicago, the institute as of May 11, has started serving a group of more than 1,000 Chinese students at the invitation of Red Yellow Blue Education Institution, the largest provider of early-childhood education in China. 

"From our point-of-view, this is about really validating Chicago as this hub of early-childhood focus and knowledge," Nagle said. "But it also strengthens us because we're all about culturally-informed practice, and this just deepens our understanding of [Chinese] culture."

One of the many factors that can effect proper cognitive development and learning is toxic stress, a type of stress Nagle called "unremitting, unrelenting." We spoke with Nagle to get a better understanding of what toxic stress is and how it can be handled in early-childhood classrooms.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Where does cognitive science research come into how you prepare early-childhood professionals?

Cognition is a big part of child development. Child development is social development, emotional development, physical development and cognitive development. But all of that happens together. The cognitive bone is connected to the language bone is connected to the physical development bone and social development bone. And if you have a huge deficit in one of these areas it really can impede your development in others.

One thing you've talked about teaching early-childhood educators is how to help children dealing with toxic stress. A lot of people have heard the term "toxic stress," but can you give a clear definition of it?

Toxic stress is unremitting, unrelenting stress. We all experience stress, and hopefully it's stress for an hour because you have to do something stressful. But toxic stress is not time-limited.

It's when you live with a substance-abusing parent, when you live with a parent with mental health conditions, when you live in an environment where you're being abused and neglected or one of the adults is being abused in the house. ... And oftentimes these things come in a pack together. Those things aren't a bad day. Those are a bad period of life.

So one negative event would probably not cause toxic stress?

Right. So, the death of a loved one could potentially become a toxic stress. But what happens when someone dies? The other people in your life help you deal with that loss and the transition and to process it and all these things.

If that happens, then the death of a loved one, while a tragedy, doesn't necessarily have to become toxic stress. It's more in the realm of tolerable stress. And you grow from it, and it's a life-defining situation, but it doesn't have to be a toxic situation. But if the adults in your life are the ones causing the stress or being victimized by that stress then [a child's] ability to have that be a stressful event versus a toxically-stressed condition [declines].

Does that mean that if adults are able to shield children from some stress, that you can have a perfectly normally-developing kid come out of an impoverished, or stressed, family?

Absolutely. That's why growing up in poverty isn't a doomsday sentence. There are people who come from those environments and do just fine. They do fine in school and they do fine in the workforce. 

I think if you really look behind [that success] you're going to see that that child had other things despite their deprivation. If they didn't have the deprivation in relationships, if they had at least one caring adult where they had a very positive, healthy relationship, [that could make the difference].

This is why the child-care experience, for kids who come from very compromised communities, could be the one place where they do have that relationship with the adult. So that child-care teacher, that school teacher, can become critical because that can be a defining relationship.

When toxic stress is experienced, what is the effect on the brain?

If you're stressed, your body is going to do things to help you deal with that. You may get sweaty palms, a nervous stomach. Your heart may be beating faster. Your body is reacting and trying to get you ready to deal with that stress. That happens in lots of areas of your body, but it's mainly happening in your brain because your brain is telling your different parts of your body: "Get ready for this situation."

So the stress [hormone, cortisol,] starts pumping and the chemical composition of the brain is being altered. It's got more cortisol and the cortisol is impacting areas of your brain that are going to help you deal with the stress, but also limit your ability to learn. If your areas of attention are now bathed in cortisol, then your attention is impaired because you're trying to be ready to act, not take in information. 

Ready to run, not ready to learn . . . 

Right. It's fight or flight. The kid is ready to fight. Not ready to learn.

If a 4-year-old, comes into a preschool program and has been exposed to this toxic level of stress, what can be done? Are things over for that kid? 

No, no, no. But we hope that the adults, because of their background and training and understanding, will interpret the child's difficult behaviors appropriately.

There have been articles dating back almost 10 years now with a wealth of research about the high rate of expulsion from child care and pre-K. But why are those kids getting expelled? A child showing very difficult behavior, which means they're hitting or biting, [can get] thrown out of a classroom pretty quick because the child-care center doesn't have the capacity to deal with that, and obviously the parents of the kid who's getting bit are going crazy on you for allowing this biting to happen.

Do we interpret this child's bad behavior as "that kid's bad, get them out of here," or "that kid really needs our help"? Does that child-care center have the capacity to interpret the child's desperate need for help? And do they have any resources to provide that help, whether that is an appropriately trained teacher or access to early-childhood mental health services in the community?

These are things that are very scarce out there. There's a lot of social service programs that are trying to provide those types of support so that [young] kids can get assistance, There is research that shows kids with conduct disorders in junior high school, when they're really able to start causing major damage, if you trace the problem behavior back, it all was there when they were 2 years old. 

So we can't expect child-care teachers to necessarily be the professionals that intervene, but we can help them understand and interpret the behavior differently.

Photo: Geoffrey Nagle, courtesy of The Erikson Institute

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