Nov 4, 2012

That hug from your mom is an evidence-based practice

Seriously, when things got difficult for you as a child, that hug, the attentiveness and comfort you received from your mother or another caregiver helped create the success you have today. This is one of the lessons from Paul Tough’s new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power Of Character, a book that updates our understanding of the dynamics of creating successful people.

Those hugs helped calibrate your developing stress response system. The body’s stress response system works best in short bursts, with long rests in between. Too much activation and the stress reaction becomes self-reinforcing,  inefficient, always set to trigger. Think of a car with an alarm so sensitive that you can’t walk past without starting it blasting.

Stress hormones put additional wear and tear on the body, affecting infant growth patterns and eventual life functioning. A mother's fast response to an infant’s experience of stress allows the stress reaction system to turn off when it needs to. And, as the child learns that his mother will respond to help him overcome his stress, that understanding produces what’s called “secure attachment,”  a close emotional bond between the infant and his mother or other caregiver. Large data sets accumulated over the course of decades show that some sixty percent of US children experience secure attachment, which connects with greater resilience throughout life. Careful analysis of decades of data reveals that stress and resilience are the common hidden factors within the many studies that show children in poverty have less satisfactory life outcomes.

Exposure to trauma, so-called “adverse childhood events” (which happens more frequently to children experiencing poverty) also impacts brain function. The child’s stress system gets overloaded through the same mechanism that causes post-traumatic stress disorder.  Anxiety and depression are the emotional impacts. Decreased executive function (the ability to deal with confusing and unpredictable situations) is the cognitive impact.

People need both emotional and cognitive capacities to function effectively. According to How Children Succeed, kindergarten teachers say the most difficult children to teach are those who can't manage their tempers or control their emotions. According to Tough, “When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet.”

Researchers have found that secure attachment is a key precursor of life success. Statistically speaking, it accounts for those children raised in poverty who do succeed, and those children in so-called “good homes” who don’t. Stressed-out moms living in difficult circumstances are more likely to get overwhelmed, less likely to respond as attentively or effectively to their own children. It’s no wonder that kids in families who have experienced poverty over the course of generations face particularly difficult challenges.

From a public policy point of view, if we want more people to succeed, what needs to happen?

One strategy being used across the US is parenting support for new mothers, usually delivered during brief home visits by public health workers. New mothers are learning what works, and building strong attachment with their children.

Another set of strategies aimed at young families works on reducing the number of adverse life events children experience. We have a series of publicly funded programs to reduce children’s exposure to violence.

Other strategies apply later in the life course, in child care, youth programs and schools. Here, the work is always harder. The most effective strategies build "noncognitive skills" together with cognitive skills. Many of the educators highlighted in How Children Succeed refer to these "noncognitive skills" as "character strengths." Educators build curricula around characteristics like grit, integrity, and perseverence --markers of capacity to complete a task, postpone a reward, find one's way through difficulty, and stick with a plan.

The problem with the character strengths label is that it can end up sounding vague, preachy and political. That’s the criticism leveled at some of the charter schools that favor a character strengths approach. Nonetheless, programs with this focus do show improved outcomes for children who otherwise face significant life challenges.

I've seen other methods aimed at building these same capacities that use more neutral terminology. One example is the so-called "developmental asset" strategy. Developmental assets are things children have in their lives that are associated with better life outcomes. The research behind them, conducted by the Search Institute, supports the work of the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, and 4H Clubs. Equally well-researched, developmental assets have the advantage of being somewhat more concrete. Attending church, doing homework, playing a musical instrument, having positive friends are all developmental assets, and there are thirty-six more as well. Most of them can be supported by the efforts of community members. There's a lot of overlap wth character, so the language of character strengths is compatible, and gives people multiple ways of explaining why taking your time and following through is important.

Another set of strategies comes from Ruby K. Payne, whose work focuses on the effects of generational poverty on child achievement. The strategy she recommends encourages students to generate several alternatives before taking action. She also recommends using relationships to motivate children to do better.

For me, the lesson is that it's ordinary life, and interventions based on kindness, relationships and stability that really create success. And here’s another lesson: The solutions for our children’s most difficult challenges are, for the most part, already known. They are variations on themes that everyone can understand.

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