The Challenge

Today, one in five children in the United States is growing up in poverty. Many of these children are exposed to violence, chronic insecurity, loss, hardship and disruption. Poverty inflicts a traumatic form of stress on their developing brains. It interferes with learning. It impacts behavior.

Children don’t leave the circumstances of their upbringing at the schoolhouse door. The trauma and stress they experience show up in the classroom. It causes them to be distracted, to tune out, be nervous, impulsive, and distrustful. Now imagine a whole school filled with children stressed this way – and there are tens of thousands of them across the country. These schools share common challenges: children unready to learn, teachers unprepared to teach students with intense needs, and principals ill equipped to act against such adversity. Collectively, these challenges pose the following risks: risk to student development, risk to classroom instruction, and risk to school-wide culture, each capable of derailing academic achievement.

To date, the education reform movement has largely overlooked the impact of poverty on child development and the associated challenge for schools. It has been a mistake to assume that principals and teachers would figure out how to overcome the obstacles facing high-poverty schools without specific training and support. Children in these schools need more than reading, writing, and arithmetic to harness their potential to learn and succeed. This has been the focus of Turnaround for Children’s work over the past 12 years in 84 schools and counting.

The good news is that the damage to children from traumatic stress is reversible. The symptoms may be profound but they form distinct, predictable patterns. This is what makes a targeted, precise intervention possible; a path for all children to experience well-being, see themselves as students and embrace the effort required to succeed in school.

Turnaround for Children understands the science of trauma as it relates to child development and puts it into daily practice in high-poverty schools. New scientific research demonstrates that children’s brains are highly malleable. Moreover, the research shows that a classroom designed to encourage academic mindsets builds resilience, persistence and tenacity in students. Simply put, children need a safe, supportive learning environment where they form positive attachments with adults; adults who know how to help them adapt to the stresses in their lives, believe in themselves, and see the steps they must take to reach their goals for school and beyond.