I had two big personal takeaways from the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness Foundation‘s excellent conference on early childhood education Feb. 9 at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Although much of the discussion was beyond my level of expertise, I was thrilled to hear the presenters’ ideas for improving social work outcomes. The Kaiser Foundation’s Diane Horm, Michigan State’s Sacha Klein and Steve Sturm evaluated what is working in Oklahoma and Los Angeles. Second, Oklahoma State University’s Jennifer Hayes-Grudo’s and Georgetown University’s Deborah Phillips’ synthesis of research on cortisol levels helped me understand a dilemma that bedeviled school-improvement efforts at Centennial High School during the Great Recession.

Ticking time bombs

When our school dropped to the bottom of the state’s secondary schools, our kids got off the busses agitated, responding to one confrontation after another. Within an hour, our halls would be clear, and high-quality instruction was being conducted in many or most classes. It was the fault of neither our teachers nor our students that, about three hours into each day, the kids became overwhelmed.

By fourth period, unresolved disputes from previous days and nights would take priority, and there would be a surge of students cutting class to settle beefs with other students. Lunch then became the venue for more conflicts. If and when the more troubled students came to afternoon classes, often they would be visibly trembling, clearly preoccupied by he said-she said conflicts that spun out of control when they left the structure of the first few hours’ of classes.

Traumatized kids retain more cortisol longer

Grudo and Phillips explained that dynamic for me. Cortisol is the stress hormone associated with the human fight-or-flight response. Cortisol levels are naturally high in the morning, but they typically decline through the day.

In children who have endured multiple traumas, however, cortisol levels remain higher longer. Because we adults lacked the capacity to intervene or ensure a safe and orderly environment at Centennial, it was like our students were hearing fire alarms going off throughout the day, and our school would be repeatedly overwhelmed by stress-induced conflicts.

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