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How Does Toxic Stress Affect Low-Income and Black Children?

Traumatic childhood experiences can harm children’s ability to learn reading, writing, and math, according to a new report.
Graffiti in a neighborhood of central Los Angeles.
Graffiti in a neighborhood of central Los Angeles.Damian Dovarganes/AP

John Singleton, the groundbreaking director who died last month at age 51 after suffering a stroke, grew up in South Central Los Angeles. In 1991, at first-night screenings in South Central for his debut film Boyz n the Hood, violence broke out. At least one man was killed. The then-23-year-old Singleton remarked about the stress of it: “I think I lost about five years of my life.”

He was channeling a bit of conventional wisdom, that extreme stress has lasting effects on health and well-being. A new report affirms that connection, finding that threatening childhood experiences can change the way children grasp math and learn the alphabet, and can even affect their ability to read a simple story. Those experiences can also permanently alter children’s physiology, creating “toxic stress.”