Nan Austin

On Campus: Young brains hit hard by violent, chaotic lives; safe, steady homes critical to learning

Panelists Geoffrey A. Nagle and Natasha Cabrera, with moderator Lillian Mongeau, on left, answer questions at the Science of Learning: Early Education session of the Education Writers Association 2015 National Seminar in Chicago on April 22.
Panelists Geoffrey A. Nagle and Natasha Cabrera, with moderator Lillian Mongeau, on left, answer questions at the Science of Learning: Early Education session of the Education Writers Association 2015 National Seminar in Chicago on April 22.

Saturday nights in the newsroom, we keep an ear tuned to the scanner. After dark, it becomes a portal to all nightmares, a listening post to a relationship war zone.

At first, calls of beatings, knifings and guns drawn ramp up the adrenaline. But eventually, the drone of the dispatchers and pure repetition dull the impact. About 40 percent of all cases at the District Attorney’s Office in Stanislaus County relate to domestic violence.

When Geoffrey A. Nagle talks of children living with unrelenting toxic stress, I think of the adults I hear shrieking in the background on Saturday nights.

“Toxic stress is not a bad day or a bad week,” Nagle said at an Education Writers Association National Seminar session I attended last week on the science of early learning. Nagle runs Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development. His background is in mental health policy research and social work, with a focus on early childhood.

The youngest brains, he said, are physically most susceptible to toxic stress, that unremitting anxiety about things they cannot control. What researchers are finding is a strong correlation of social ills, such as family violence or life in chaotic neighborhoods, and faster cellular decay.

In short: The strain is aging them.

“We don’t think of stress when we think of young children. It’s supposed to be this carefree time,” Nagle reflected.

But a Center for Youth Wellness study released in November, based on California Department of Public Health surveys of 27,745 adults, found a strong correlation of stressful childhoods and worse health in adulthood. The more stressors – such as having a parent in jail or living with an alcoholic – the more likely they were to have high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, cancer and a host of other ailments increasingly common as we age.

“There’s this incredible relationship of (adverse childhood experiences) and health. It increases the risk for every bad health outcome,” Nagle said.

Schools, however, see the symptoms of stressful lives much earlier.

“We know the effects of stress. Stress compromises the ability to learn,” Nagle said. Multiply that when stress is a constant. Kids without stable or safe homes become overactive, more aggressive, less attentive, hypervigilant, he said, “These are the children who get expelled when they get physical.”

The policy implications for Nagle are clear. “Our window of opportunity, when we talk about early experience, we look at the first five years – 1,826 days. So it’s not a lot of time to ensure that children have great experiences.”

That can’t just be an education program for 3- or 4-year-olds, he said. “The constellation of what we do for young kids has got to be bigger than just what happens at 3 or 4.”

“Does it mean if you don’t do a great job, then that person is doomed? No, but I believe you’re always compensating,” he said.

Building on that premise, speaker Natasha Cabrera urged support and services for families to best help relieve the stress on children. Cabrera heads the Family Involvement Laboratory at the University of Maryland.

“The quality of early homes matters a lot. Early learning experiences at home are key,” she said. Homes should be safe havens, without a lot of yelling, where kids have nutritious food, stimulating toys and books, and loving adults.

“They are characterized by routines,” Cabrera said. Simple things such as a constant bedtime and eating meals at the same time every day have a big payoff.

Parents talking with – not at – a kid help the child develop resiliency and coping skills. And the microscope has recently focused in on dads. Fathers, it turns out, offer more than a paycheck, a deep bellow and batting practice.

“Dads are really important in language development because they are linguistically more challenging than moms,” Cabrera said, explaining that fathers tend to quiz kids and demand answers, while moms tend to let grunted answers ride, infer and move on.

“Fathers encourage children to take smart risks,” Cabrera said, citing an example of a dad telling his child to try swimming across the pool to him. Dad-centric activities such as roughhousing teach kids how to self-regulate, she said, “Kids learn boundaries, when to stop, when’s too much.”

Family time also contributes to reading skills. “Group reading is not as effective as we thought it was,” Cabrera said. When kids are in a circle listening to stories, “only the kids who already have reading skills are going to benefit from that. It’s much better to do one-to-one, which you get at home,” she said.

She promotes bilingualism for everyone. “Because (bilingual kids) are switching a lot, they’re more likely to pivot easily from one thing to do another,” she said, drawing parallels to changing activities in a class.

On the flip side, putting young English learners in a class where they are constantly shushed by English-only teachers misses critical opportunities for them, Cabrera said.

Stressful lives also call for taking the mental health of parents and teachers more seriously. “Depressed parents are negative parents,” she said. “Stressed parents are less effective. Stressed teachers are less effective.”

The child’s mental state also matters, she said. “Children don’t come empty-handed,” she said. Kids elicit behavior from others, she said, “It’s a two-way street.”

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.