Most days, it is easy to forget about the stress and turmoil in which our participants live. At the TYO Center, there is a certain level of organized chaos that staff and participants alike have come to thrive on. All the children know our teachers and our standards. They function with (relative) autonomy, play freely and interact respectfully. Most importantly, they all have access to the same experiences and resources. In their home environments, however, many of our participants contend with significant challenges: they are physically and verbally abused by family members, sleep in one-bedroom apartments with ten people, run out of water, are subject to the symptoms of a political situation they don’t understand and cannot control, suffer from hunger and neglect. Yet, every morning and afternoon of our program the majority of them are sweet, straightforward, smiling children. I am continually astounded by their resiliency and their progress despite the tremendous obstacles before them.
A recent article in the Washington Post prompted me to consider once again the effects of early childhood experiences on the brain and body. The article, based on recent research conducted by Cornell professor Gary W. Evans, explains the relationship between poverty, stress and working memory in children. His findings show that the longer a child lives in poverty, the higher their allostatic load (a measurement of stress) and the lower their working-memory at age seventeen. Working memory is essential not only for daily activities, but also for achievement in school and the formation of long-term memories. In Nablus, students spend the majority of their seventeenth year preparing for a standardized test that determines their academic and professional future—think SAT, GPA, TOEFL combined. According to Evans’ research children who spent their entire childhood in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory tests than their peers who were never poor.
While striking, I am not discouraged by the findings. True, poverty is only one of the multitude of obstacles that TYO’s participants compete with, but everyday I see children eager to learn, continuing to thrive and overcoming insurmountable odds. It is with research like this in mind that TYO works closely with our in-house psychosocial specialist and consults other experts to ensure that our programs teach participants to identify and appropriately manage their emotions, especially those of stress and anxiety. Children like Momen give us hope that positive early childhood experiences can be as formative as detrimental ones.