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Character Matters

The Science of Resilience

Part I

Metacognitive Reflections on Paul Tough’s book, “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why”, The Atlantic, June 2016

Neuroscientists have concluded that a set of ‘non-cognitive’ character strengths that include resilience, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, and grit make a huge difference in the academic success of children. The most important force shaping these character traits is ‘stress’. It triggers physiological and neurological adaptions that affect the way bodies react to the environment.

In early childhood, stress, as a ‘persistent pressing signal’ stimulates a complex network connecting the brain, the immune system, and the endocrine system. These arousal conditions activate the ‘fight-or-flight’ response and raise the production of adrenaline and stress hormones. Consequently, the higher levels of produced stress hormones hinder the development of the prefrontal cortex, PFC, the part of the brain that controls the ability to regulate emotions and cognitions.

When consistently on alert, this ‘threat detection system’ makes it difficult for children to regulate their response to repeated disappointments and perceived antipathy leading to self-defeating behaviors such as talking back, acting up, and unsteady interactions with classmates and teachers. If this stress is chronically elevated, it interrupts the development of higher-order mental abilities that include memory, attention control, and cognitive flexibility, exceptionally useful when facing new cognitive information.

When executive functions aren’t developing, days in school with frequent directions and constant distractions can become never-ending unwanted repetitions of frustrations. Whereas, when executive functions are developing, they strengthen the ‘non-cognitive’ traits necessary for academic success.

There are two places where we can help children with the science of adversity: home, where children’s neurobiological identity begins and school, where it is shaped.

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