Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University, has analyzed two separate neurological systems that develop in childhood and early adulthood that together have a profound effect on the lives of adolescents. The problem is, these two systems are not well aligned. The first, called the incentive processing system, makes you more sensation seeking, more emotionally reactive, more attentive to social information.
The second, called the cognitive control system, allows you to regulate all those urges. So for a few wild years, we are all madly processing incentives without a corresponding control system to keep our behavior in check. This combination of forces in many of her students was exactly what Elizabeth Dozier felt unable to manage at Fenger High School. After the near riot at the school in October of , she decided there were certain students she simply needed to remove from the school for good. At the top of her list was a sixteen-year-old boy named Thomas Gaston, known to all as Mush. As Dozier saw it, Mush was a ringleader, a high-ranking gang member who was able to spark giant brawls at Fenger with a single glance at one of his lieutenants.
He set the school up for a whole lot of nonsense. I got to know Mush because he was enrolled, along with two dozen or so other Fenger students, in an intensive mentoring program paid for by the Chicago public schools and run by a nonprofit organization called Youth Advocate Programs, or YAP. In the fall of and the winter and spring of , I spent a lot of time in Roseland with various YAP advocates and the students they were mentoring, including Mush.
My main guide was Steve Gates, the deputy director of YAP in Chicago, a laid-back, burly guy in his late thirties with short, tight dreadlocks; a loose beard; and watery, pale blue eyes. Like Mush, Gates lived in Roseland, just a few blocks from Fenger; he had grown up there, in fact, in similar circumstances and had made a lot of the same mistakes that Mush was making now, twenty years later: running with a gang, carrying a gun, risking his life and his future every day.
When Mayor Daley named Huberman to the post, Daley was concerned about the rising rate of gun violence among young people in the city, and he gave Huberman an unusual mission for a schools chief: Keep our students from killing one another. His first step as schools CEO was to hire a team of consultants to do a CompStat-like analysis on homicide and shootings among students in Chicago. The consultants created a statistical model that, they said, enabled them to identify the students in the city who were most likely to become victims of gun violence over the course of the next two years.
Those were the students who were handed over to YAP and assigned an advocate for as many as twenty hours a week of mentoring and support. Mush was on that list, which meant that in the fall of , Steve Gates went looking for him to get him enrolled in YAP and assigned to an advocate.
At the same time, though, Elizabeth Dozier was trying to kick Mush out of Fenger. Soon after he signed up with YAP, she managed to remove him from her school, at least temporarily, exiling him for a semester to Vivian E.
Summers Alternative High School, a small, grim, prisonlike facility eight blocks away from Fenger. But Mush decided to slip back out to the streets. A few hours later he was in the Cook County jail along with his friend Bookie, both of them charged with aggravated vehicular hijacking, meaning carjacking with a gun. Boot camp was a tough ride for Mush—a military-style regimen, pushups and ten-mile runs at dawn—but he drew on some inner discipline that he had seemed to lack at Fenger, and he made it through his sentence.
When I first started spending time with YAP advocates and their students, Mush was still locked up, and well before I encountered him in the flesh, I heard a lot about him—from Gates, from Dozier, from his friends in YAP, even from his mom, whom Gates and I dropped in to see one night while Mush was in boot camp. Dozier spoke about Mush with awe, as if he were some kind of delinquent Svengali. Gates told me that grown men were scared to death of him. His mom, of course, was less impressed with his gangland reputation; she took great pleasure in telling me that she used to buy him boxers with Arthur, the cartoon aardvark, printed on them, to embarrass her boy into keeping his pants pulled up.
Still, when the time came for me to meet him, I was a little nervous; it felt like meeting a celebrity.
How to Teach Students Grit - The Atlantic
In person, though, Mush looked like an average South Side teenager, but smaller—not much more than five feet tall, and skinny even after eight months of pushups—and he walked with a stiff-jointed, splayfooted, almost Chaplinesque shuffle. He wore a string of rosary beads around his neck, a Yankees cap pulled low on his forehead, and an oversize jacket that could have easily held two or three Mushes. We went to a diner on Western Avenue to eat eggs and drink coffee and talk. Both of their childhoods, though, were unrelentingly stressful, and each of them was damaged by that stress in a deep and lasting way.
Though neither had the opportunity or the inclination to submit to the kind of allostatic-load measurements that McEwen and Evans and Schamberg and other researchers performed on their subjects, we can assume that if they did, their readings would be off the charts. And yet, while the damage done to their bodies and brains by childhood trauma may have been comparable, there was a big difference in the way that damage expressed itself in their lives.
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Monisha took her stress and turned it inward, where it manifested as fear, anxiety, sadness, self-doubt, and self-destructive tendencies. Mush, by contrast, turned his outward: fighting, acting up in class, and, eventually, breaking the law in a variety of ways. Mush started getting in trouble early: he was kicked out of elementary school for fighting with the principal.
But his behavior got significantly worse when he was fourteen and his brother, who had enlisted in the army to escape the violence of the South Side, was shot and killed in a robbery near his base in Colorado Springs. And to clear my mind, I would just be out there on the block, acting bad, playing with guns and all that.
Researchers from Northwestern University recently gave psychiatric evaluations to more than a thousand young detainees at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago—a facility where the majority of YAP students had spent at least a little time—and found that 84 percent of the detainees had experienced two or more serious childhood traumas and that the majority had experienced six or more.
Three-quarters of them had witnessed someone being killed or seriously injured.
More than 40 percent of the girls had been sexually abused as children. More than half of the boys said that at least once, they had been in situations so perilous that they thought they or people close to them were about to die or be badly wounded. Academically, they were severely behind the curve : the detained youth had average scores on standardized vocabulary tests at the fifth percentile, meaning they were below 95 percent of their peers nationwide.
Burke Harris told me the story of one particular patient, a teenage boy who, like so many of her patients, lived in a stress-filled home that had inflicted on him a particularly high ACE score. She had run her clinic long enough that she had essentially been able to watch him grow up.
When he first came to the clinic, he was ten, an unhappy child in an unhappy family but still a boy, someone who had withstood some blows but who still seemed to have a chance to escape his bleak destiny. But now this boy was fourteen, an angry black teenager on his way to being six feet tall, and he was hanging out on the street, getting into trouble—a hoodlum in training, if not a criminal already.
The reality is that most of us are inclined to feel nothing but sympathy and understanding toward the ten-year-old—he is a boy, after all, and clearly a victim. But toward the fourteen-year-old—not to mention the eighteen-year-old he will soon become—we usually feel something darker: anger and fear, or at least despair. Spending time with the kids in YAP, I often found myself wrestling with questions of guilt and blame: When does the innocent boy become the culpable man?
I had no objection to the proposition that aggravated vehicular hijacking is a genuinely bad thing, and that people who do it, even sensitive, thoughtful guys like Mush, should suffer the consequences. Gates defined that system mostly in social and economic terms; Burke Harris saw it neurochemically. But the more time I spent in Roseland, the more those two perspectives seemed to converge.
How Children Succeed by Paul Tough: review
Much of the new information about childhood and poverty uncovered by psychologists and neuroscientists can be daunting to anyone trying to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children. But there is also some positive news in this research. It turns out that there is a particularly effective antidote to the ill effects of early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators but from parents. Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment.
This message can sound a bit warm and fuzzy, but it is rooted in cold, hard science. The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical. The researcher who has done the most to expand our understanding of the relationship between parenting and stress is a neuroscientist at McGill University named Michael Meaney.
Like many in the field, Meaney does much of his research with rats, as rats and humans have similar brain architecture. At any given time, the Meaney lab houses hundreds of rats. They live in Plexiglas cages, and usually each cage holds a mother rat, called a dam, and her small brood of baby rats, called pups. Others would just ignore them. When the researchers examined the rat pups, they discovered that this seemingly insignificant practice had a distinct physiological effect. When a lab assistant handled a rat pup, researchers found, it produced anxiety, a flood of stress hormones, in the pup.
Meaney and his researchers were intrigued, and they wanted to learn more about how licking and grooming worked and what kind of effect it had on the pups. Researchers counted every instance of maternal licking and grooming. And after ten days, they divided the dams into two categories: the ones that licked and groomed a lot, which they labeled high LG, and the ones that licked and groomed a little, which they labeled low LG. The researchers wanted to know what the long-term effects of these variations in parenting behavior might be.
So when the pups were twenty-two days old, they were weaned, separated from their mothers, and housed for the rest of their adolescence with same-sex siblings.
The main evaluation they used was something called an open-field test, a common procedure in animal-behavior studies: A rat is placed in a large, round, open box for five minutes and allowed to explore at will. Nervous rats tend to stay close to the wall, circling around and around the perimeter; bolder rats dare to venture away from the wall and explore the whole field.
In a second test, designed to measure fearfulness, hungry rats were placed in a new cage for ten minutes and offered food. Anxious rats, like jittery guests at a fancy dinner party, tend to take longer to work up the nerve to try any food, and they eat less than the calmer, more confident rats do.
On both tests, the difference between the two groups was striking. In the ten-minute food test, high-LG rats began eating, on average, after just four tentative minutes, and they ate for more than two minutes in total. The low-LG rats took, on average, more than nine minutes to start eating, and once they did, they ate for only a few seconds. The researchers ran test after test, and on each one, the high-LG offspring excelled: They were better at mazes.
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