Protecting Kids Against ‘Toxic Stress’

Some kids start out life with two and one-half strikes against them. No wonder so many of them strike out early in life.

Last week during a hearing held by West Virginia legislators, the problem was explained about as well as I’ve heard it put. Among those testifying was Patricia S. Kusimo, president of the Education Alliance.

“Toxic stress” is the problem for too many children, she told lawmakers. It happens in poor families, most of the time.

Toxic stress is a term for the effect on a child of poverty, homelessness, hunger, absentee parents, domestic abuse, alcoholism and other drug abuse. Kusimo said such factors actually can affect a child’s brain physically, reducing the ability to learn.

Many of us remember classmates who suffered from toxic stress. One sign was that when most other children were happy and carefree, the toxic stress kids seemed incapable of being cheered up.

Educators are well aware that the primary indicator of whether a child will do well in school is socio-economic status. Poor kids don’t do as well as those from better-off families, to put it bluntly.

But as Kusimo pointed out, there’s an enormous amount of real mental, emotional and physical stress holding many children back.

And it’s because of their tension-filled home environments. Teachers sometimes find that after a few hours working with a so-called “slow learner,” they can make great progress. Then the child goes home after school and the next morning, it’s back to square one.

How do we limit the exposure of children affected by such stress to the toxic environments that cause it? By getting them out of their homes and, frankly, in contact with less stressful people as much as possible.

Day-care and early childhood education programs help, so we need more of them. So do efforts such as the wonderful Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

After-school programs and extra-curricular activities help. So do circles of friends who aren’t victims of toxic stress.

In all likelihood, there are other things we can do to protect children against toxic stress. We really need to learn what they are and, to the best of our limited financial ability in West Virginia, use them.

Education reform per se isn’t the answer for these children. Insulating them from toxic environments is.

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