Alfred Lubrano, a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer who has written extensively about poverty and its effects, published a piece on December 11th about the ways in which “harsh or authoritarian parenting,” a disciplinary practice that researchers say is more common among families living in poverty, affects the children who are victims of it.
When children who do not feel supported or loved are disciplined harshly, says pediatrician Daniel Taylor, their bodies release cortisol–a hormone that, when released in large amounts, is “toxic to developing brains.” The resulting “toxic stress,” as it has been labeled, can affect a child’s health, behavior, and ability to learn–resulting in uncontrolled emotions, attention deficits, hyperactivity, combative behavior, problems focusing, reading difficulties, and even physical issues like heart disease. And unfortunately, since children often parent the way they themselves were parented, many experts suggest that “poor neighborhoods likely hold countless families suffering from compromised brain development, generation after generation.”
People who work with children of low-income families are too familiar with the effects poverty has on kids’ lives, yet many so-called education reformers consistently decree that teachers and children use poverty as an “excuse” for poor academic performance. In fact, those same reformers are often proponents of “no-excuses” charter schools that force their students to conform to very strict rules and behavior codes, many of which have been described by teachers and parents as unreasonable and even abusive. At such schools, children (and teachers, for that matter) are under such stress to produce high test scores that the quest to perform well on standardized tests often supersedes the humanity, compassion, and empathy that should be central to a child’s upbringing, education, and overall development. Children who cannot comply with the “no-excuses” model are often expelled, “counseled out,” or otherwise forced to seek education elsewhere–and often return to the very neighborhood schools from which charter operators suggest children should flee. Children who choose not to comply often seek educational alternatives willingly, and their voluntary attrition is typically not reflected in the statistics and graduation rates “no excuses” schools like to advertise.
So if research shows that “harsh or authoritarian parenting” can damage to a child’s developing brain, can’t the same be said for a school whose “no-excuses” policies are militaristic and uncompromising? What do such schools teach children when they promote the idea that standardized test scores in English Language Arts and math, which are virtually meaningless to children, are so supremely important that anyone who cannot or does not focus solely on improving such scores will face harsh consequences?
Lubrano’s article concludes with Philadelphia social worker Marcy Witherspoon’s observation that “parents need advocacy and support” in order to effectively break the cycle of toxic stress–and theoretically, schools should be staffed with educators (and counselors, social workers, and child psychologists) who are equipped to undertake such challenges. (The fact that traditional urban public schools have been subjected to budget cuts that force them to eliminate such positions is no accident, but that’s content for another post.) “No-excuses” schools with authoritarian disciplinary policies, however, can actually perpetuate or create toxic stress in children, and as a result, such schools effectively contribute to the problem they claim they want to fix. Thus, in their seeming quests to close the “achievement gap” and address the problem of poverty, they actually create the toxic stress that precludes children from developing both emotionally and intellectually to their full potential.