Poverty, Trauma Alter Young Brains

Momentous Institute executive director Michelle Kinder. (Courtesy photo)

It’s weird to sit in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom crying into your coffee in front of 320 other guests, unless you’re at a Momentous Institute event, listening to devastating stories of children who walk the bright halls of Momentous and go home, often to darkness and difficulties.

The story of a child’s abuse that Michelle Kinder, the executive director of the institute, told at the Changing the Odds dinner on Sept. 27 was difficult to listen to. The 7-year-old, struggling in school and benefiting from therapy sessions at Momentous, had been systematically traumatized and subsequently abandoned.

It’s not always like that. Many children at the Oak Cliff lab school run by the Salesmanship Club of Dallas have stable lives and loving homes. But 85 percent of Momentous students qualify for free lunches; many grapple with the struggles and smaller traumas of poverty, violence, and hunger.

The institute’s answer is an education built on social emotional health. There’s also a research component that’s contributed years of supportive data and insight school districts around the country, including Dallas ISD, are benefiting from. There’s a training program and healthcare professionals who work with students at a secondary campus on Harry Hines Boulevard.

When the 3–11-year-olds at Momentous get angry or upset, or can’t think through a problem, they know how to handle it. They’ve learned breathing exercises and practice mindfulness. They use toy-based cop-ing techniques. They know what part of their brain is firing up and can point to their amygdalas — even the 3-year-olds can.

[pullquote-left]“But, please hear this … intervention also changes children’s brains.” -Michelle Kinder[/pullquote-left]

The results are clear. When students understand and can control their reactions and emotions, they perform better; they don’t act out in school and get written off as “problems” by teachers unequipped to understand them; their brain development and their life trajectory don’t get written by traumatic experiences from early childhood. And at Momentous, 98 percent graduate high school on time and 82 percent pursue higher education — numbers unprecedented for the demographics the school serves.

After Kinder left the stage to a standing ovation, and everyone tried to make it look like they weren’t crying, Richie Davidson, a neuroscientist, shared research on meditation. His address kicked off the annual Changing the Odds Conference.

The conference expands Momentous’ reach to children who will never attend the school or the therapy sessions in Dallas and forces difficult conversations around what to do with underserved children.

“Dallas continues to be one of the most segregated cities in the country,” Kinder said. “We know that African-American and Latino children are disproportionately affected by poverty, toxic stress, and trauma, and we know that toxic stress and trauma literally change children’s brains. But, please hear this … intervention also changes children’s brains.”

That’s why Momentous Institute events are never about solipsistic “who’s who’s” or perfunctory donation asks. They’re difficult. They’re uncomfortable. And they’re important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *