Graffiti in a neighborhood of central Los Angeles.
Graffiti in a neighborhood of central Los Angeles. Damian Dovarganes/AP

Traumatic childhood experiences can harm children’s ability to learn reading, writing, and math, according to a new report.

John Singleton, the groundbreaking director who died last month at age 51 after suffering a stroke, grew up in South Central Los Angeles. In 1991, at first-night screenings in South Central for his debut film Boyz n the Hood, violence broke out. At least one man was killed. The then-23-year-old Singleton remarked about the stress of it: “I think I lost about five years of my life.”

He was channeling a bit of conventional wisdom, that extreme stress has lasting effects on health and well-being. A new report affirms that connection, finding that threatening childhood experiences can change the way children grasp math and learn the alphabet, and can even affect their ability to read a simple story. Those experiences can also permanently alter children’s physiology, creating “toxic stress.”

The study’s authors also point to a connection to neighborhood conditions, as chronic issues of “excessive litter, vandalism, deteriorated and overcrowded housing, graffiti, noise, public drug and alcohol use” can exacerbate toxic stress in children.

In the report for the Economic Policy Institute, Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein synthesize research to zoom in on the effects of stressful childhoods on low-income children, and black and white children. They find that children with low family income—children with a family income of $20,000 or less—are more likely to encounter threatening experiences and the “toxic stress” that accompanies it. They also find black children generally have more exposure to these experiences than white children.

What is a threatening experience? Researchers often use the term “adverse childhood experiences” as used by the Center for Disease Control, but Morsy and Rothstein write that they prefer the term “frightening or threatening” to delineate from the inevitable adversity of childhood, such as losing a soccer match or having a disagreement with a sibling or a friend. The term “adverse childhood experiences,” which is used in most of the research collated by Morsy and Rothstein, comes from a study conducted by Kaiser Permanente at their San Diego Health Appraisal Clinic using data collected from 1995 to 1997. (That report covered more ethnic groups and indicated similar levels of adverse childhood experiences for black and Latino children. Asians were the least likely of any racial group to experience adverse childhood experiences.)

Most of the 10 questions on a standard ACE questionnaire relate to how children have been treated by adults in their lives. Among them: Did a parent or other adult in the household often swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt? Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide? Did a household member go to prison? These threatening experiences cause particular physiological reactions: When these reactions happen too often, the body’s responses can become chronic and disrupt normal processes.

“When children have a protective adult, it can mitigate so many other factors,” report co-author Leila Morsy told CityLab. But she cautions against blaming parents, “who are often under intense pressure from adverse experiences themselves.” Limited control over job choice can lead to absences, and the incarceration crisis for black men means that children with black fathers are more likely to have an incarcerated parent.

But even the most attentive parents can’t control the surrounding neighborhood.

The EPI report considers neighborhood, and the authors hone in on the effect that neighborhoods have on parental well-being, and how they can hinder a parent’s ability to be supportive. However, violence witnessed is also a traumatic experience for a child and can have a significant effect as well.

The EPI study notes a number of ways to address such trauma, but focuses on school-based solutions because, as Morsy said, school is one of the other reliable, nearly daily constants in most children’s lives. Schools can be a hindrance, the report notes, if they have unsympathetic or threatening adults—or they can help, providing mental-health services that enable children to process trauma and improve their academic performance. The Chicago School Readiness Project and a San Francisco program, Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools, are two such programs that the report cites as providing mental support such as psychotherapy or mental-health professionals.

But there are preventative measures that cities can take, particularly in vulnerable neighborhoods. Some issues that contribute to the sense of disorderliness in neighborhoods can be addressed by attentive programming, rather than all-too common neglect, as when New York City stripped one high-poverty neighborhood of public trash cans even as they remained in wealthier areas of the city.

Providing safe spaces for parents to congregate and reducing disorder are issues that can be addressed by city policy. While management of the effect of toxic stress on children is essential, it may be that at least some can be prevented with targeted initiatives.

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