If you haven’t heard it already, This American Life’s “Back to School” episode is a riveting examination of how children’s environments and early learning affect their adult health and achievement prospects. Here’s the Act One summary from the show’s website:
[Host Ira Glass] talks with Paul Tough, author of the new book How Children Succeed, about the traditional ways we measure ability and intelligence in American schools. They talk about the focus on cognitive abilities, conventional “book smarts.” They discuss the current emphasis on these kinds of skills in American education, and the emphasis standardized testing, and then turn our attention to a growing body of research that suggests we may be on the verge of a new approach to some of the biggest challenges facing American schools today. Paul Tough discusses how “non-cognitive skills” — qualities like tenacity, resilience, impulse control — are being viewed as increasingly vital in education, and Ira speaks with economist James Heckman, who’s been at the center of this research and this shift.
Doctor Nadine Burke Harris weighs in to discuss studies that show how poverty-related stress can affect brain development, and inhibit the development of non-cognitive skills. We also hear from a teenager named Kewauna Lerma, who talks about her struggles with some of the skills discussed, like restraint and impulse control.
We then turn to the question of what can schools can offer to kids like Kewauna, and whether non-cognitive skills are something that can be taught. Paul discusses research that suggests these kinds of skills can indeed be learned in a classroom, even with young people, like Kewauna, facing especially adverse situations, and also the success of various programs that revolve around early interventions. Ira reports on a mother and daughter in Chicago, Barbara and Aniya McDonald, who have been working with a program designed to help them improve their relationship — and ultimately to put Aniyah in a strong position to learn non-cognitive skills.
Nadine Burke Harris’s work (profiled in Paul Tough’s 2011 New Yorker article) addresses the physiological effects of childhood trauma. Growing up homeless or in violent homes or neighborhoods, for instance, can put people at greater risk of later health problems as well as emotional and cognitive impairment. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, a collaboration between CDC and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego, is following a cohort of 17,000 subjects to investigate the long-term effects of ACEs. So far, researchers have found higher childhood stress to be associated with a greater risk of alcoholism, depression, ischemic heart disease, and many other health problems. Jane Stevens’ ACEs Too High blog is a great place to get more background and the latest news on this area of research and policy.
Because I’d read Tough’s New Yorker article, various ACE-related pieces, and James Heckman’s recent Boston Review article on social mobility, a lot of the content of the “Back to School” episode was familiar to me. But a couple of things about the show made it stand out for me anyway. First of all, the producers did a fantastic job weaving all these different strands of research together. More importantly, they interviewed two people who’ve benefitted from interventions designed to counteract negative effects of traumatic childhoods. Hearing Kewauna Lerma describe her transformation from a rage-overwhelmed teen to a successful college student and Barbara McDonald interacting healthily with her young daughter Aniya provides some hope after the distressing summary of research about childhood trauma’s long-lasting impact. You can hear the whole thing here.