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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Stress can make kids smarter (in some ways)

Unstable parenting, poverty, a violent environment and other “adverse childhood experiences” contribute to “toxic stress” that impairs brain development, writes Olga Khazan in The Atlantic.  “As a result, poor children tend to have less gray matter in areas of the brain critical to learning and memory, which explains as much as 20 percent of the gap in test scores between poor and middle-class kids.” As adults, they may have trouble planning ahead. “In many studies, lower-income people say they’d prefer a smaller financial reward today, rather than a larger one later.”

However, in some ways tough childhoods build intelligence, writes Khazan. 

Coping with early adversity could make children better at some forms of reasoning, according to a 2015 study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Participants read a news story about economic uncertainty, then played a game measuring self-control and another measuring the ability to “shift quickly between tasks by categorizing shapes according to rapidly changing rules.”

Across four experiments, the researchers found that when primed with economic uncertainty, people with unpredictable childhoods performed worse on the inhibition task than those from stable ones, but they did better at the attention-shifting task.Children of verbally aggressive parents are better able to recognize emotions, according to a forthcoming paper in the Perspectives on Psychological Science, writes Khazan.
People who suffer trauma seem especially skilled at remembering it — perhaps a strategy aimed at avoiding trouble in the future. In one paper, kids who were abused could later remember the doctor who performed their Child-Protective-Services exam from a lineup, but they were worse than average at recognizing people they had interacted with positively. Poor adults performed worse on tasks that required working memory, but better on those that involved so-called “procedural learning” — more muscle-memory skills like driving a stick-shift.

What does mean for schools with lots of children from stressful backgrounds? Instead of trying to make “stressed kids more like their unstressed, middle-class peers,” schools could play to students’ strengths, said Bruce Ellis, a University of Utah psychology professor.For example, writes Khazan, “schools could try new approaches, like letting these kids move around and talk during class. That would put them in the type of chaotic environment they’re used to, with the goal of letting their hidden strengths shine through.”That sounds like a bad idea. Surely more chaos is not what these kids need. Why not create a haven of order?

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