ASU study aims to reduce stress in disadvantaged schools

ASU pilot student targets stress in at-risk children

Extensive research has shown that disadvantaged school environments are highly stressful at multiple levels for students, teachers and administrators. Such findings are particularly troubling in light of the mounting evidence that chronic stress translates into long-term adverse effects on learning, memory and health outcomes. 

An interdisciplinary group of experts from Arizona State University, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins School of Education is researching solutions for this emerging health challenge. These partners will launch a pilot study to test the effects of an intervention targeted to reduce school-wide stress with funding from CityBridge Foundation and The Ludwig Family Foundation. 

The researchers will collect saliva from students and teachers to measure levels of salivary cortisol, alpha amylase, nerve growth factor and immunoglobulin. The samplings will then be compared with written surveys to assess psychosocial stress, grit/resilience, and students’ and teachers’ self-beliefs related to learning and teaching. 

“This is the first approach of its kind to quantify biological levels of perceived stress at the individual, classroom and teacher levels, and may shed light on the link between stress and key educational metrics,” said professor Douglas Granger, the director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research at ASU. 

The intervention being tested was developed by the nonprofit Turnaround for Children to reduce psychosocial stress in high-risk, high-poverty educational settings. The partnership between the universities is led by professors Granger and Sheila Walker, and is being conducted in two District of Columbia Public Schools in Washington, D.C. 

“The extremely stressful conditions found in high-poverty educational settings, including the negative culture and lack of physical and emotional safety experienced by students, can create a destructive cycle, inhibiting learning, resilience and health amongst students, teachers and administrators, and can create a persistent atmosphere of chronic stress,” said Walker, a research associate with Hopkins. “Our long-term aim is not only to optimize the learning environment for individual children, but also to improve psychological and physiological health for all students at a school system-wide level.”

The investigators will build on new research by experts in systems biology that validates the importance of examining classrooms and schools as dynamic, interactive systems, particularly given the growing evidence to support the contagion effect of stress and its many downstream consequences.  

Walker commented, "We believe that this study has ground-breaking potential to further our understanding of how to optimize educational environments for high-poverty, at-risk children.”

The researchers hope that their approach, which combines information from social and biological sources, can provide valuable data to help fortify educational settings and optimize outcomes for at-risk children. Moreover, the findings are expected to have important implications, not only for improving academic success, but also for enhancing broader life outcomes, quality of life and long-term health. CityBridge Foundation and The Ludwig Family Foundation are both Washington, D.C.-based philanthropic organizations dedicated to education and promoting positive change in communities. 

The Institute for Interdisciplinary Salivary Bioscience Research is a research unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.