Overcoming Stress: Research and Reality

Most days, it is easy to forget about the stress and turmoil in which our participants live.  At the TYO Center, there is a certain level of organized chaos that staff and participants alike have come to thrive on. All the children know our teachers and our standards.  They function with (relative) autonomy, play freely and interact respectfully. Most importantly, they all have access to the same experiences and resources.  In their home environments, however, many of our participants contend with significant challenges: they are physically and verbally abused by family members, sleep in one-bedroom apartments with ten people, run out of water, are subject to the symptoms of a political situation they don’t understand and cannot control, suffer from hunger and neglect.  Yet, every morning and afternoon of our program the majority of them are sweet, straightforward, smiling children.  I am continually astounded by their resiliency and their progress despite the tremendous obstacles before them.

A recent article in the Washington Post prompted me to consider once again the effects of early childhood experiences on the brain and body.  The article, based on recent research conducted by Cornell professor Gary W. Evans, explains the relationship between poverty, stress and working memory in children. His findings show that the longer a child lives in poverty, the higher their allostatic load (a measurement of stress) and the lower their working-memory at age seventeen.  Working memory is essential not only for daily activities, but also for achievement in school and the formation of long-term memories. In Nablus, students spend the majority of their seventeenth year preparing for a standardized test that determines their academic and professional future—think SAT, GPA, TOEFL combined. According to Evans’ research children who spent their entire childhood in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory tests than their peers who were never poor.

While striking, I am not discouraged by the findings.  True, poverty is only one of the multitude of obstacles that TYO’s participants compete with, but everyday I see children eager to learn, continuing to thrive and overcoming insurmountable odds.  It is with research like this in mind that TYO works closely with our in-house psychosocial specialist and consults other experts to ensure that our programs teach participants to identify and appropriately manage their emotions, especially those of stress and anxiety.  Children like Momen give us hope that positive early childhood experiences can be as formative as detrimental ones.

No more play in Kindergarten?

There has been a spate of pop and academic media about recent research about the importance of play. You can follow some of the highlights in the TYO Radar on the left.

Perhaps one of the most extensive recently is a 72-page report just published by the Alliance for Childhood. It provides a readable, practical view of the virtues of play and the research that supports it. You can read the report here.

While of course there are other issues at play here in Nablus and the West Bank, having visited several pre-schools in Nablus last week, it is clear that there is a lack of free play time in many programs here. Even many of the 4-year-old classrooms were dominated by benches with attached writing desks, with minimal open space for playing with blocks and reading in a group, much less dancing or running.

TYO’s programs take an entirely non-formal education approach, engaging children in activities like sports and arts that are designed to stimulate their mind in different ways than traditional curriculum. More importantly, these activities have a psychosocial application, offering a platform and tools for self-expression. Largely as a result of this non-academic focus, we struggle with parents who are concerned about their kids missing out on valuable study time. Our attendance is much lower during school exam weeks. And our participants are 4-8 years old!

Fortunately, the impact of our programs on our participants is visible, and we hope that these results, combined with efforts to educate parents about the value of play and other non-academic activities for their children’s mental well-being, and indeed neurological development, will win us many converts before long!