DANGER: Deadly coronavirus. Wear a face mask.
These stark words are spelled out in large letters to protect children as they enter a community playground. But the biggest danger to our children isn’t the possibility of contracting the virus on a playground. As we protect our children from becoming infected, and from infecting vulnerable family members, we are overlooking a far greater danger to the children themselves: stress.
Stress related to the coronavirus in both public and private spaces — along with the disruption of home and school environments — is compromising the development of brain systems and cognitive skills needed for success in school and life. We know this from decades of neuroscience research on the effects of poverty, trauma and violence on brain development.
But there is also some promising news: Neuroscience has provided us with programs to mitigate the stress effects of Covid-19.
We write from years of experience. One of us established the Goldie Hawn Foundation, which provides children around the world with neuroscience-based knowledge and tools to manage stress, regulate emotions and face the challenges of difficult circumstances. The other has done 25 years of neuroscience research at Yale University, evaluating and developing programs that harness the brain’s ability to increase cognitive function and reduce achievement gaps related to poverty, as well as help children handle Attention Deficit Disorders without medication.
We have learned about programs that protect brain and cognitive development, needed now more than ever because of the pandemic. But these programs are currently available to far too few children. We must do better.
Neural systems that most distinguish the human brain from those of other animals actively develop during early childhood. Their development depends on support and stimulation from the environment. These neural systems support activities known as “executive function” — such as focused attention, self-control, flexible thinking and working memory, all of which are essential for success in school and life and for good mental health. These traits are better at predicting school success and high school graduation than IQ tests.
Children without these traits are more likely to misuse drugs, develop criminal records, become unemployed and exhibit a variety of physical and mental health problems as adolescents and young adults. Compromised executive functions contribute to depression and suicide, the rates of which are alarmingly high among adolescents. Adults with compromised executive function have great difficulty being productive members of the twenty-first century global economy.
The interruption of preschool and school programs this past year, along with anticipated restrictions from quarantining, stress on parents from unemployment or work in risky situations, and illness and death among family and friends all undermine the foundation for healthy brain growth. Stress triggers brain mechanisms that particularly compromise neural systems supporting executive functions.
And worried, unemployed and/or sick parents cannot provide the positive environmental stimulation needed to promote the development of executive function.
Added to this is the increased visibility of police brutality. Many young children are experiencing “stress on steroids.” Even before the recent increase in coronavirus cases, more than 30 percent of children in the United States who were surveyed reported losing sleep, feeling more depressed, having less confidence in themselves and worrying about having their basic needs met. Fear and the consequences of an invisible threat are inescapable.
What can be done? There are programs that work. In a September 2019 report, a national nonprofit called BrainFutures — which is dedicated to advancing the use of neuroscience-based interventions for promoting healthy brain development — identified 10 school-based programs. All have strong, peer-reviewed and published data, and all demonstrated that they can improve executive function.
For example, children who participated in one program’s three short mindfulness meditation breaks during the day reported higher levels of optimism and said they were better able to make themselves feel happy. Their stress-hormone response also changed, and their vocabulary and reading improved.
Children who did another program’s online cognitive skill-training exercises that look like computer games had increased attention, self-control and memory. Classes that used the program had four times as many children meet state proficiency standards in math and reading compared to classes that did not use the program.
Even before the pandemic, BrainFuture’s scientific advisors recommended that some combination of the 10 evidence-based executive function programs be used in every American school.
Now, it’s an imperative. Many of the report’s featured programs are web-based and can — and should be — used whether instruction is provided in school, at home or both.
School leaders and teachers are overwhelmed with uncertainty, stress and logistical demands as they face the issue of student and staff safety. Next in mind are maintaining growth in math and reading. Budgets are strapped as the economy reels.
How can we afford to introduce new programs now?
How can we afford not to?
If we fail to take this action, our children may escape the immediate physical illnesses associated with Covid-19 but suffer a lifelong compromise of cognitive function and mental health. These effects will be greatest among children in disadvantaged communities who can least afford them, adding to disparities that already challenge the well-being of our country.
We ask district leaders, government officials, foundations, corporations and philanthropists with bold visions and deep commitments to the well-being of our children and country: Are you willing and able to help?
This story about childhood brain development and the coronavirus pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Goldie Hawn is an Academy Award-winning actress, producer, director, best-selling author and true children’s advocate. She is the founder of The Goldie Hawn Foundation and the program MindUP, a public charity with a mission to equip children with the social and emotional skills they need to lead smarter, healthier, happier and ultimately more productive lives.
Dr. Bruce Wexler is a professor of psychiatry in the Yale School of Medicine, the author of Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change (MIT Press, 2006) and Chief Scientist at C8Sciences.