Saturday, April 14, 2012

Zip codes and cortisol

Suppose you had a child who had sustained a moderate head injury in a car accident, how would you assess her her first few months back?

Her memory may be wobbly, she may be prone to bouts of inattention.

You'd be kind, no? You'd work with her to help her get through her material. You might even whisper to her that there are bigger things in life than this week's homework assignment.

You certainly would not blame the child for the extra work you both need to do to get her through the curriculum.

Suppose you had a child who's just returned from home instruction after a particular rough bout with treatment for his brain tumor. He's doing better now, thanks be to God, but he's not quite as sharp as he was.

A colleague mentions to you he had brain irradiation. You get a vague 504 notification that he needs more time to complete his tasks, that he needs an outline of all class activities. You'd be more than glad to take on the extra duties. You're a teacher, and like most teachers, frequently take those extra steps for children who need them. You do not need a 504 reminding you to be human.

You certainly would not blame the child.

Now imagine you have a child who has been exposed to a drug during early childhood, a drug known to shrink a portion of the brain called the hippocampus.

You do a little research on the hippocampus, a critical component for new memories and for spatial awareness. You ponder what it must be like for a child facing challenges in an increasingly competitive and unloving school system.

You can predict how such a child might do in today's schools.

The drug? Cortisol.
The source? A child's own adrenal glands, a response to stress.
The cause? More often than not, poverty.

I worked for years as a pediatrician in shelters and public housing in some of the most stressed neighborhoods in New Jersey. I saw plenty of love, strength, and beauty under conditions that crushed souls. But I was putting band-aids on the gaping wounds of systemic neglect that continue and continue and continue.

A child who lives under constant severe stress has, literally, smaller hippocampuses than a child not exposed to the same stress.

I sat a table's width across from Governor Christie last spring as he spouted off one of Arne Duncan's soundbites: "Zip code is not destiny."

And I agree. As brain tumors and moderate brain injuries are also not destiny.

But if you think any of them have no effect on a child's education you are simply not thinking.

Would it had made a difference if I screamed at the smugness that accompanied the remark?
A remark by the most powerful man in our state, speaking of the least.


Unknown said...

Our next door neighbor does foster care. People bust on the system. They make blanket statements about the people who do foster care and yet this woman and her husband are amazing.

When she has kids who are a similar age to our kids, I notice differences. They seem like small things. Memory. Attention. General processing time. Background knowledge. Inability to articulate emotions as well as others.

I'm not suggesting that they are cursed, but I sense the difference intuitively. It's not science, I realize, but spend any time around a child who was raised by a drug addict and you'll sense the difference.

I still believe in the power of education. I've watched the kid I tutored from 5th grade through early college turn out to be an example that "zip code is not a destiny." However, he's still growing, maturing and learning from some damage done pretty early on.

And here's the thing: it was a team of people who cared about him that led him to where he is. It was his brother, back from prison, who showed him stability and love when other family members couldn't. It was his small group leader in church. It was his teachers who worked selflessly to tutor him when he asked it, even when they knew he was not one of the "bubble kids." And I'm sure, on some level, it was me picking him up once a week to go over homework and play basketball.

Most of all, it was him. He was a resilient kid (some would say stubborn) and he simply refused to quit.

His success has nothing to do with tests and high standards and any initiatives by a politician.

doyle said...

Dear John,

As usual, you come back with a post, and a fine one at that.

The hippocampus hsa some association with emotions as well as memory--there may be a connection there.

I, too, believe in the power of education. Why else teach in a public school?

Resilience/stubbornness/moxie/gumption is critical, but not universal, as anyone who teaches knows.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this explanation (filtered through another person, you, I realize). Every day I see students with "no memory". I understood no short-term=no long-term. I just did not understand how all these students arrive with no short-term memory. I am not sure that we in schools are changing that. Does it ever change? I see that huge amounts of time dedicated to one person can change their behavior and attitude, but not their memory for academics (surely the least important to students in survival mode), nor their ability to retrieve memories and create logical associations.
In a room of 30 students, with papers to grade, and a hurtling change every hour, teachers don't have time to do this for the 28 of their 30 students who need it. So those one or two who are "picked" for special attention are the lucky few. How do we decide who we pick?
It's clear that schools for stressed students have to provide something different from academics, but then we are discriminating against these students academically. And of course the students looking for high level academics should go elsewhere. Hard to weigh the effects of what we do. And hard to forsee the effects of an increasingly stressful world on children's development.
A rising tide sinks all shipwrecks lower.