Toxic Stress and Children’s Outcomes and the State of Research on In-School Sources of Trauma

By Guy Johnson, Senior Program Director, P-12 Federal and National Networks and Utieyin Etchie, Opportunity Institute Fellow

This week, Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein released Toxic Stress and Children’s Outcomes: African American Children Growing Up Poor are at Greater Risk of Disrupted Physiological Functioning and Depressed Academic Achievement. We at the Opportunity Institute are proud to be sharing Ms. Morsy’s and Mr. Rothstein’s piece and to help advance a national dialogue about the impact of toxic stress on students and of the role of trauma-informed practices in schools. Across school campuses, in different communities and in different states, students are in high-impact, ongoing relationships with toxic stress. This is true especially for students in areas with acutely concentrated disadvantage.

Morsy and Rothstein say stress becomes toxic when “…events or conditions are severely frightening or threatening, and especially when they are sustained or frequently repeated.” Under these circumstances, the otherwise salutary effects of stress — like heightened focus — are lost, and a host of negative stress-related effects result in a decrease in performance levels.

Even while the concepts of toxic stress and trauma-informed care gain wider understanding, and the idea is becoming more widely accepted that schools can play a transformative role in the lives of children subjected to toxic stress, Morsy and Rothstein are correct to identify that what continues to lag is research on — and support for — evidence-based practices and the thoughtful, timely, comprehensive implementation of those practices. Critically, they identify that research into academic disparities and disparities in student outcomes is doomed to fail if it does not recognize and understand the role of socio-economic disadvantage in toxic stress, and the racially disparate distribution of those socio-economic disadvantages.

More pointedly, they suggest that researchers and education reformers have at least abided — if not perpetuated — significant race-based inequities in education because they have failed to properly account for the disparate impact of toxic stress on black students. While the most common entry point into conversations about race and trauma-informed care is, as detailed by Morsy and Rothstein, the detailed and irrefutable data about the school-based racial discrimination in the form of school discipline, there are broader manifestations of racial discrimination in our schools and equally significant implications for how very far our system is off course.

Yes, data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights show that black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA has similarly documented large racial disparities in California school districts’ disciplinary practices, reporting that black students are disproportionately dealt expulsions and out-of-school suspensions — the harshest exclusionary penalties. And yet, while disparities in school discipline are a good, data-based place to start conversations about racial discrimination in our schools, it should not be where these conversations end. Consider, for example, that even when black children do not receive formal discipline in schools, they are still frequently subject to random searches, the use of metal detectors, increased police presence in their schools, and the threat of referral to law enforcement.

That none of of these practices is supportive of a safe and protective learning environment is only half of the point. The uncomfortable truth is that racial discrimination is undeniably interwoven throughout the fabric of America’s institutions — and not just the criminal justice system. Morsy and Rothstein are right to say that when we talk about discrimination in schools, we are talking — in addition to overtly hostile acts — about the increased rates of misclassification and misdiagnosis of learning disabilities in students of color, particularly Black students. We are talking about the criminalization of Black students’ expression of typical emotions like anger and frustration.

This is why, as Morsy and Rothstein point out, we cannot address toxic stress outcomes in children without coming to terms with the disparate racial impact of this stress. This means taking an approach to research that develops a more comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes of toxic stress, and that is timely attentive to the needs and abilities of policymakers. Morsy and Rothstein, for example, identify “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) as both an accepted term of art in this field and an unusably vague term for the purposes of formulating policy. This underlines a continuing need to bring research and practice more closely together, to discuss external, systemic causes of trauma for students along with the numerous, and impactful, in-school sources of trauma.

As we work together to get a better handle on these issues, the clarion call from Morsy and Rothstein is not only for future research to be student-centered, but for our collective efforts to center on the needs of black students. There is much in this paper to suggest that the racial analysis in this field has room to develop as well in terms of disaggregating, and better understanding, the diversity in experiences among Native American, Latino, and Asian students, for example, who for various reasons have experienced toxic stress very differently, and in sharply different contexts. Certainly the experiences of Native American girls, Pacific Islanders, and Central American refugees, for example, are deserving of close analysis. The threat of family separation via detention and deportation — at any time, by government officials within our borders, not just along the Rio Grande — demands our outrage, our research, and our compassionate action.

With this, we can not only identify school discipline as a cause of toxic stress among specific groups of children, but we can also move forward to identifying other sources of toxic stress, including the practices of teachers, school leaders, and of students towards each other. In the coming weeks, we will continue to explore the contours of such an equity-based research agenda.