By Ellen McGirt
September 14, 2016

This month’s lead story in American Psychologist presents some important new thinking on the biology of race. Specifically, the biology of race-based “social stress,” and how the hormonal stress response of students of color struggling with racial barriers and stereotypes affects their sleep, mood, memory, ability to think, and ultimately, their grades. (If you or your library don’t subscribe, you can buy the article here.)

Bottom line: The very experience of being black or brown in America — particularly for those living at or near the poverty line — is stressing kids beyond their abilities to cope. And this, says the four authors, holds the key to eliminating the disparities in academic achievement that’s been dogging our education system for ages.

Of course, school and teacher quality matters, the authors say, but those factors don’t fully explain the reason for the persistent achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. “Key raced-based social stressors include perceived discrimination and stereotype threat,” the authors write. “Psychological and biological responses to these stressors, in turn, have implications for motivation as well as basic cognitive processes such as attention, memory, and executive functioning, all of which are associated with academic achievement.”

From this point of view, most of the interventions that we currently have in schools, from increased law enforcement to constant testing, are doomed from the start.

But other interventions can work, and here’s a story that will give you hope. Frontline has an excellent series of short pieces on education here, but I suggest you start with Omarina’s Story, about Omarina Cabrera, a struggling middle school student from Middle School 244 in the Bronx.

Omarina’s teachers began collecting specific behavioral data that they believed would help identify middle school kids at risk at an early stage. One piece of that data was tardiness, as being consistently late is a pretty good predictor of future academic disaster. And Omarina had been late or absent a lot, but not because she wasn’t trying: She and her mother had become homeless when they were evicted from their apartment, and Omarina had been too ashamed to tell anyone.

Though the data is the unspoken star of the story, it’s what the school staff did with the information that is instructive. They reallocated their resources so that kids who were struggling were matched with adults to help them process and cope. Omarina had a team of people who addressed her very specific challenges, like helping her figure out the shortest routes to school as she bounced between shelters or bunked in with relatives. One administrator actually traveled with her one day, and was shocked by the distance she was managing alone. The interventions helped Omarina deal with her emotions, make better decisions, and stay focused on her work.

Her twin brother, who we see mostly lying in bed, exhausted, was not as lucky.

Omarina is a lovely person and easy to relate to in many ways. She’s not angry and she eagerly accepts help. Creating a relationship with another type of kid — one who reacts to stress in more difficult ways to manage, will be tougher.


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