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On an emotional level, toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations.A highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up, and, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers or teachers.In California this spring, for example, a coalition of nine major school districts has been trying out a new school-assessment system that relies in part on measurements of students’ noncognitive abilities, such as self-management and social awareness.But here’s the problem: For all our talk about noncognitive skills, nobody has yet found a reliable way to teach kids to be grittier or more resilient.Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity how severe and chronic stress in childhood—what doctors sometimes call toxic stress—leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop and, significantly, the way they function in school.
An infant makes a sound or looks at an object—that’s the serve—and her parents return the serve by responding to her babbles and cries with gestures, facial expressions, and speech.
What this suggests is that if we want to help children demonstrate these qualities in school, there are two places where we need to change our approach.
One is the classroom, where right now many fundamental practices of modern American pedagogy ignore this science of adversity.
In recent years, in response to this growing crisis, a new idea (or perhaps a very old one) has arisen in the education world: Character matters.
Researchers concerned with academic-achievement gaps have begun to study, with increasing interest and enthusiasm, a set of personal qualities—often referred to as noncognitive skills, or character strengths—that include resilience, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, and grit.
What is emerging is a new idea: that qualities like grit and resilience are not formed through the traditional mechanics of “teaching”; instead, a growing number of researchers now believe, they are shaped by several specific environmental forces, both in the classroom and in the home, sometimes in subtle and intricate ways.