Combatting Toxic Stress with Nonformal Education

Toxic Stress Defined Toxic stress in the earliest years of childhood has a dramatic, negative, and lasting impact on health, educational, and life outcomes. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently published a policy statement calling attention to the individual and social consequences of toxic stress and the biological mechanisms by which it functions. The AAP defines this acute form of stress as the “strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive adult relationship." In such a situation, children rarely, if ever, feel safe and protected, and their bodies respond as though they are constantly in danger.

The consequences of toxic stress are severe; the AAP report explains that “toxic stress can lead to potentially permanent changes in learning…behavior…and physiology…and can cause physiologic disruptions that result in higher levels of stress-related chronic diseases and increase the prevalence of unhealthy lifestyles that lead to widening health disparities.” In sum, toxic stress affects how well children can learn academically and socially, how they function in relationships, and increases the likelihood that they will suffer from debilitating chronic diseases throughout their lives.

Toxic Stress in the Classroom

The 9 to 11-year-old children in my Recycled Crafts class are all vulnerable to the effects of toxic stress. TYO’s ongoing community needs assessment continues to reveal chronic poverty, parental unemployment, exposure to violence, the use of violence for discipline at school and home, and maternal depression to be common experiences for children in the refugee camps and neighborhoods where my students live. I have only limited knowledge of my students’ specific home lives, but I know that one child in my class is an orphan, another has a severely disabled brother, and every time I speak with her, the mother of one says, “He drives me crazy! His older and younger brother are good, but he makes me crazy.” Moreover, I am all too familiar with student behavior that suggests toxic stress—one is illiterate; most are hyperactive; some lack impulse control; still others are painfully shy.

The key to combatting toxic stress is establishing relationships that make the children feel safe and secure. In my classroom, my daily challenge is to deal with the behavioral effects of years of toxic stress while creating an environment that is safe, supportive, and fosters resilience. With my first group of students, I quickly learned that they had too much energy to work on arts and crafts projects for the full two hours of our class. I also learned—through a series of highly disruptive classroom power struggles—that the boys and girls in the class felt uncomfortable working at tables together. More to the point, they were determined to sit with their friends for every activity. These larger issues and many smaller ones meant that discipline, rather than arts and crafts, occupied most of our class time in our first weeks together.

In order to help us build a positive classroom environment, TYO's Psychosocial Program Manager, Suhad, led a class discussion with my students. She asked them to express their frustrations with the class and propose changes that would allow them to be more comfortable and engaged. First, small group discussions about favorite movies, places they’d like to visit, and favorite school subjects allowed the students to get to know each other on a deeper level. Second, the boys requested soccer, lots of soccer. I complied, adding soccer to the curriculum. In later classes, I noticed that during drills or scrimmages, the boys and girls were equally fierce, cooperative, and focused on scoring goals. They started agreeing to sit together in the classroom, too.

The bottom line is that we built a better class as a team of students, volunteers, teacher, and administrators. By listening to their concerns and suggestions and adjusting the class to reflect their needs, we made it clear that we trusted them. TYO became their center, not ours, because it was a place where they were safe and their voices mattered.

Of course, their behavior at this point is far from perfect. But it is precisely the class challenges and frustrations that have allowed me to clearly and unequivocally establish myself—and everyone who works at TYO—as adults ready to build nurturing, supportive relationships with those students.


Karen Campion is currently a TYO Fellow as a recipient of the Princeton Class of 1956-81 International ReachOut Fellowship.