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Research-Based “Warm Fuzzies”?

If you have even a passing acquaintance with Communities In Schools, you know that CIS is based on decades of research about why young people drop out of school and what it takes to keep that from happening. This research drives the CIS program model. The model is school-based. It is a comprehensive, wrap-around service approach that depends heavily on collaborative support from dozens of partner organizations who are experts in their own fields. It serves not just students, but whole families. In educational circles, the concept is known as integrated student services.

We also talk a lot about “intensity” and we implement the CIS model in ways that maximize the number and regularity of interactions with individual students. This supports the understanding that occasional brushes with caring adults don’t change the courses of young lives. In fact, our founder Bill Milliken puts it best when he says “Programs don’t change people; relationships change people”.  And this, you may think, is where the research-based stuff goes out the window and the “warm fuzzies” begin. But wait! Not so fast, my friend.

Paul Tough’s 2012 book called “How Children Succeed” recounts the work of numerous other researchers. For decades, society has worked under the premise that cognitive ability (how much we know) was the single most reliable determinant of how a person’s life would turn out. But, it turns out that certain psychological traits were more reliable predictors of what allowed high school students to make it through to graduation. Those traits, including an inclination to persist at boring and often unrewarding tasks, the ability to delay gratification, the tendency to follow through on a plan…also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace and in life in general. This led to some obvious questions like, why do some young people have these traits and some don’t? Can these traits be taught and learned? How?

Most answers turned out to be rooted in childhood development and the medical fields of neuroendocrinology (the study of how hormones interact with the brain) and stress physiology (the study of how stress affects the body). Don’t bail on me here…I promise to stay in the shallow end of the research pool.

Scientists have reached a consensus that the key channel through which early adversity causes damage to developing bodies and brains is stress. Cascading chemical signals through the brain and the body are triggered in reaction to intense situations…..stress. In fact, the evolutionary rush of chemicals designed to save our life from lions on the savanna, is a massive and damaging over-reaction to the stresses of the 21st century. What was designed to give us a momentary surge of protective energy is activated for months on end as stresses about hunger, homelessness, family violence, abuse, grief and loss, and countless other stressors that overwhelm some children. Eventually, stress-management systems overload and break down under the chemical strain. Stress physiologists have found a biological result of this phenomenon as well. The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex which is critical to self-regulatory activities of all kinds. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And all of these have a direct impact on their success in school.

These self-regulatory processes are generally referred to as executive functions. Here is where the research shakes hands with CIS. The reason that researchers who care about the gap between rich and poor are so excited about executive functions is that these skills are not only highly predictive of success; they are also quite malleable, much more so than other cognitive skills. The prefrontal cortex is more responsive to intervention than other parts of the brain, and it stays flexible well into adolescence and early adulthood. So if we can improve a child’s environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success. Furthermore, it turns out that there is a particularly effective antidote to the ill effects for early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators. Parents and substitute or supplemental family figures (hello CIS social workers) who are able to form close, nurturing relationships can foster resilience in children that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment and can even reverse the chemical imbalance that caused the damage. Executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood.

So it seems that close, nurturing relationships do not just make for happier children. Research indicates that kids with these relationships are also be more likely to graduate from high school, to stay out of jail, to delay pregnancy, and to have more positive relationships with their own children…breaking family cycles of damage due to childhood stress. For those of us at Communities In Schools, this is changing the picture of education; one student and one family at a time.

Using words like “relationships” can sound all warm and fuzzy but in fact, even this part of CIS is rooted in cold, hard science. The effect is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical. Yes…research-based warm fuzzies. Who knew?

– Mike Steele, President & CEO, Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County