LIMA — This time of year, students and parents begin to prepare for the upcoming school year. For students living in poverty, the ability to succeed can be hindered by stress from their home life, a new study suggests.
United Way of Central Ohio released a study titled “How Toxic Stress Threatens Success,” which uses statistics and research to describe how stress from poverty can affect children in their present life and in the future.
The study defines toxic stress as, “strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity — such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or accumulated burdens of family economic hardship — without adequate adult support.”
When stress factors connected to poverty occur during childhood, the chances a person will attempt suicide increases by 1,200 percent, the chances of becoming an alcoholic increases by 740 percent and the risk of heart disease and stroke increases by 200 percent, according to statistics included in the report. This is in addition to the increased chance that the student will drop out of high school or that a preschooler will have lived in three homes by the time he or she reaches kindergarten.
Allen County’s poverty rate from 2008-12 was 18.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to Ohio’s rate of 15.4 percent.
Families in poverty are naturally under greater stress than families who aren’t, according to the study, not only due to not having enough money, but also because poverty takes more time and mental resources.
Head Start programs help children in poverty by trying to give the children what they lack because of poverty, such as making sure all their health needs are met, providing meals, and working with parents to help them make and meet family goals, according to Phyllis Montrose, child development service director.
Adults in poverty may be working more than one job to try to survive, causing them to miss events such as parent-teacher conferences, the study said, or they may have to rely on public transportation, which creates greater time constraints.
Parents in poverty are under much more stress, in general, than those who aren’t, according to the study.
“Good parenting, by contrast, is assisted by the availability of stores of untaxed mental resources,” the study said.
One of the most important things that Head Start does is gives children a sense of stability, beginning as early as when the child is an infant. Early Head Start takes infants until the child is 3, when they can transition to Head Start. Having a routine is important for children who may have an unstable lifestyle at home, Montrose said.
“They need to feel safe,” she said.
Creating stability for children who do not have it at home is part of Sara Bowsher’s job as the transitional living coordinator at Lima City Schools. Bowsher said she makes sure that things at school stay the same when life at home changes.
Poverty at home can make it so children are tense and unable to concentrate at school, Bowsher said.
This toxic stress definitely has an impact on children, Bowsher said, but she also sees many children growing up in poverty succeed.
“Sometimes I think it makes them stronger because they know they have to work for everything they get,” Bowsher said.
The effects of toxic stress can be seen on the brain, the study said. Eighty percent of the brain develops and organizes in the first four years of life, so consistent stress impairs the brain.
Some stress is healthy for children, but long, drawn-out, unpredictable stress can make children physically sick or cause health problems during adulthood. In addition, food insecurity has been linked to poorer performance on math and reading and an increased chance of repeating a grade, the study says.
“If you’re hungry you’re not going to focus on any activity,” Montrose said.
Lima City Schools has a backpack program for children, according to Bowsher, which sends children in need home on Fridays with some snacks, meals, drinks and breakfast items for the weekend. In addition, children can get free breakfast and lunch at school during the week.