Black-American women with PhDs die earlier than white women who are high school dropouts. This shouldn’t be the case, especially when education is a social determinant of health. Statistically, when people have access to quality K-20 education, they have greater opportunities that help shift their socioeconomic status, thus reducing the likelihood of negative health outcomes. However, cumulative, racialized stress contributes to the decline of Black people’s health, regardless of their degrees.
In the U.S., Black people die earlier because they are Black. We have the ability to disrupt this pattern and it starts with the tools we give Black children in schools.
I’m a high school educator, college professor and health researcher who has spent some time studying stress and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) with former California Surgeon General Nadine Burke-Harris. ACEs numerify negative experiences in childhood such as abuse and neglect. Without the care and attention of a loving adult, these experiences can become harmful to the child’s developing body, causing toxic stress. Certain stressors like studying for tests or competitive sports can be advantageous to the body. Negative experiences that lead to toxic stress, however, can cause physical harm.
Over half of adults have at least one ACE, but Black children experience ACEs at a rate higher than any other group. In our work studying the impacts of ACEs such as racism and social isolation, we learned that these stressors can lead to chronic disease and early death.
More than 34.8 million U.S. children across all backgrounds are impacted by ACEs. If you are a teacher, you are likely teaching someone who is suffering from toxic stress. Our existing teaching practices may not provide the protection necessary to help them navigate this, especially if they are Black.
While continuing my studies on stress with my high school students in San Francisco, I studied another biomarker of health called telomeres. Telomeres protect our bodies from deterioration. Toxic stress dramatically shortens our telomeres, leaving us more susceptible to chronic disease. I studied the length of my students’ telomeres via saliva samples from the beginning and end of each academic year. I found that my Black students were on a fast track to early death. Many of them had telomere lengths comparable to breast cancer survivors and adults triple their age.
Using what I learned in my doctoral program at UC Berkeley and my time with the Center for Youth Wellness, my teaching team and I developed interventions that radically altered our students’ health. By the end of the year, we found that students’ telomeres had regrown.
Here’s what we did and why this model should be studied in educational institutions across the country:
Rather than using grades that pit students’ achievement against each other, we provided narrative-based assessments that helped them understand and honor their growth. Students were supported to foster cultural pride and connection by learning to speak the indigenous languages of their ancestors such as Twi and Yoruba. We spent time in nature and traveled the world together. Back home, meditative practice opened our lessons.
The intervention saw results because it was consistent with public health and critical race research, that when young people feel a sense of belonging, cultural pride and connection to the natural world, their bodies are better able to regulate stressors and gain protection from social adversities.
Racism won’t end in my lifetime. So, we need to arm Black youth with the tools to protect themselves against its impacts. If we are serious about the health and wellbeing of Black children, then we must make belonging, knowledge of self and connection to nature central to our school design, curricular models and measurements for success.
Because if this work isn’t about the health of our students, why are we doing it?