New research on toxic stress and poverty: Implications for practice

by Venessa Marks and Julie Novak

This post is part of a three-post series on toxic stress. The first post explains what toxic stress is and why it matters for youth mentoring programs, and this second post highlights what professional staff needs to know about toxic stress. A third will discuss recent programmatic innovations related to toxic stress and trauma-informed approaches.


Breakthroughs in brain science have revealed that our environment affects our cognitive development and functioning to a far greater degree than researchers previously appreciated. Chronic and severe stress overloads our brains and bodies and directly impacts our ability to reason clearly, to plan ahead and delay gratification, and to regulate our emotions.[i] The families that many of our mentoring programs serve are under this kind of stress on a regular basis, and it can impact children’s wellbeing and development as well as a parent’s capacity to manage their children’s participation in our programs. Previously, we explained what toxic stress is and the long-term impact it can have on children’s developing brains and bodies. For this post, we will focus on the meaning of new research on poverty, trauma, and stress for case managers and other mentoring professionals working with vulnerable youth and families.


The Impact of Trauma and Poverty on Brain Function

Traumatic experiences or threatening situations elicit a strong stress response in the body, flooding the brain with cortisol and other stress hormones. Living with continual food or housing insecurity or with ongoing abuse or neglect in childhood can turn stress toxic. Particularly when these experiences are not buffered by a consistent, responsive adult, they can impact the development of the pre-frontal cortex in the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for many of the skills individuals need to succeed in school, work, and life. The ability to plan ahead, avoid distractions and focus; to manage one’s emotions and shift behavior according to differing contexts and demands; and to resist impulsive actions and persist in tedious tasks to achieve long-term goals – all of these skills are a constellation of capabilities that neuroscientists often refer to as executive functioning and self-regulation skills.[ii] Living with severe and chronic stress – so called ‘toxic stress’ by neuroscientists – during early childhood can have a significant, negative impact on the development of these skills, which in turn can impact an individual’s life trajectory and future prospects for self-sufficiency.


Although largely developed by early adulthood (approximately age 25), executive functioning and emotional regulation skills can also be temporarily compromised in adults by the stresses of living in poverty. Studies have shown that the experience of living with scarcity – of worrying about meeting one’s own basic needs for food or shelter – imposes a type of ‘cognitive tax’ on individuals, temporarily reducing their ability to effectively cope with the very challenges that cause their stress. Even our IQ can be affected. In a series of experiments published in the journal Science, researchers found that an individual who was preoccupied with money problems experienced a decline in cognitive function akin to a 13-point drop in IQ, which is equivalent to losing an entire night’s sleep.[iii]


These advances in brain science offer profound and important implications for mentoring programs serving vulnerable children, youth and families. This article suggests three key ways programs can apply this research to their work: 1) adopting trauma-informed approaches to direct service; 2) building executive functioning and emotional regulation skills in children/youth through mentoring activities; and 3) cultivating stronger sensitivity with parents.


Adopting Trauma-informed Approaches

Trauma-informed approaches to service delivery are grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma.[iv] Although not all mentoring program participants may have been exposed to trauma before entering your program, the key principles of trauma-informed services can be empowering for any participant. Mentoring programs seeking to adopt trauma-informed approaches should deepen staff understanding of trauma through training and support, and carefully review intake, matching, and match support policies, procedures and practices to ensure that they:

  • Cultivate a sense of safety. The experience of trauma can make individuals hyper-vigilant and overly sensitive to stressors. Staff should receive training on possible triggers for individuals with a history of trauma, and feel prepared to prevent or mitigate potential conflict. This includes sensitivity towards the possibility of re-traumatization through intake questionnaires, training activities and match support questions.[v]
  • Take a strengths-based approach. Human beings can be remarkably resilient and can overcome significant obstacles. It is important that staff believe in the ability of individuals to heal from trauma and that staff focus on individual assets, as opposed to perceived deficits. Individuals’ strengths should be regularly recognized and validated.[vi]
  • Focus on self-determination and empowerment. All youth and parents, but particularly those with a history of trauma, need to feel in control of their own decisions. People who have experienced trauma can feel out of control of their lives or bodies, which can contribute to feelings of shame or helplessness. Staff should approach match support services with a focus on collaboration and mutuality – empowering both youth and parents to make meaningful choices regarding the services they or their children receive and the steps they take moving forward.[vii]


Building Executive Function and Emotional Regulation Skills in Children and Youth

Simple age-appropriate activities can help children and youth enhance and practice their executive function and emotional regulation skills. Intentionally cultivating these skills with a supportive, caring adult – such as a mentor, program staff member, or parent – can offer the added benefit of strengthening protective relationships and modeling healthy habits. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University offers a comprehensive guide on cultivating these skills by age group, which include these match-appropriate activities:

  • Activities for 5-12 year olds: card games and board games that require children to remember what cards have been played or strategize complicated moves; physical activities such as organized sports that require children to hold complicated rules and strategies in their minds and monitor their own and others’ reactions; learning to play a musical instrument or follow rhythmic patterns through singing or dance; and brain teasers such as crossword puzzles, logic or spatial puzzles such as Sudoku or Rubik’s Cube.
  • Activities for 13-18 year olds: helping youth set appropriate goals, develop action plans, and reminding them to periodically monitor behavior to help achieve those goals; encouraging ‘self-talk’ that focus on growth (e.g. recognizing that failure to achieve something can offer lessons and need not be a final judgment on one’s abilities); helping teens be mindful of interruptions and to adopt strategies to prioritize and sequence tasks such as homework assignments; helping teens understand the motivations of others, encouraging them to consider alternatives to assuming mal intent; and, similar to pre-adolescents, participating in activities that draw on a range of self-regulation skills including sports, music, theater, strategy games and logic puzzles.


Many of your mentors may naturally gravitate towards these types of activities with their mentees. But developing a deeper understanding of executive functioning and self-regulation skills (and how they can be compromised by exposure to toxic stress or trauma) can shine new light on why some youth may struggle with these activities, and why they are so critical to practice.


Cultivating Greater Sensitivity Towards Parents

One of the most common reasons for match closure in community-based programs is that a parent/caregiver of a child or youth in the program becomes unresponsive to program outreach. This can be deeply frustrating for program staff, as staff have often worked hard to set up a strong relationship between a mentor and mentee that can no longer be supported even though both the child and mentor remain invested. Cultivating a stronger understanding of the stresses of living in poverty and executive functioning and self-regulation impairment, however, may help programs keep more parents engaged and lessen the blow when parents have too much to juggle to keep their child in the program.


One important way that programs can maintain engagement with parents is to simplify and streamline program processes and requirements. Studies have shown that mental exhaustion, information overload, and ‘hassle factors’ such as inconvenient office hours can be a significant deterrent for parents living in poverty taking advantage of social service and public assistance programs.[viii]  Mentoring programs should take strides to ensure that intake forms and procedures, for instance, are easy to understand and logistically accessible. Program requirements should likewise be simple and straightforward. Collaboration with other complementary service providers and the bundling of services can also reduce participation barriers.


The emerging research on severe stress, trauma and cognitive function offers great insight for mentoring programs serving vulnerable youth and families. Deepening our understanding of the impact of poverty and trauma on youth and adult behaviors can help develop a stronger sense of empathy and improve our competency for effectively serving all of our participants.


Suggested Resources:

  • The Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. This website offers free articles, online trainings and information about the latest research on brain development and toxic stress:
  • “Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence.” This article provides activity suggestions that could inform match activities for children with impaired executive functioning skills (self-control, working memory, emotional regulation):
  • “Toxic Stress in Low-Income Families.” This recorded webinar features an expert panel explaining toxic stress and what practitioners are doing to prevent toxic stress exposure in children and ameliorate its effects on adults:
  • The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. This website provides helpful information on trauma-sensitive care and vicarious trauma for staff:
  • Using Brain Science to Design New Pathways out of Poverty.” This article, written by a service provider, offers concrete tips and examples of how direct service programs can change their operating procedures and processes to make them more accessible and successful for adults with impaired executive functioning skills.
  • “Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Brain Development.” This resource provides a more detailed explanation of brain development and the impact of childhood trauma and toxic stress:
  • “The Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring – 4th Edition.” This resource suggests evidence-based standards for mentoring, including child safety and screening standards:
  • “Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-Serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures.” Created through a collaboration of violence prevention researchers and child safety experts from some of the nation’s largest, most experienced youth-serving organizations, this guide provides a framework for organizations to assess and strengthen their child abuse prevention efforts:
  • Commit to Kids. This program from the Canadian Centre for Child Protection provides a step-by-step guide to help organizations create safe environments that protect children from misconduct and abuse within youth-serving organizations:


As a Senior Manager with ICF’s Family Self-Sufficiency team, Venessa Marks specializes in supporting and evaluating community-based workforce development initiatives for vulnerable populations. As the former Vice President of Research, Innovation and Growth for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Venessa worked with the BBBS network, national leadership, and valued partners to set BBBSA’s research agenda and to invest in innovative, impactful programming. As the Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for New York Needs You, Venessa created and launched their corporate giving and volunteer engagement department. Later, as their Vice President of the Fellows Program, Venessa ran the organization’s signature mentoring and career development program for first-generation college students, leading programmatic evaluation and driving continuous, data-driven improvement. As a Director and Consultant with Dare Mighty Things, Venessa led training and technical assistance contracts supporting federal grant programs focused on positive youth development and nonprofit capacity building. Venessa earned a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College, studying social change movements.​ Venessa lives with her husband and daughter in New York City.


Julie Novak serves as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America’s leading expert and national spokesperson on child safety and youth protection-related matters. She leads the nationwide advancement of effective child abuse prevention and crisis response strategies throughout Big Brothers Big Sisters’ network of more than 300 affiliates, working collaboratively with other national experts. Novak develops and provides statewide and national child abuse, violence prevention and crisis management training and consultation reaching thousands of professionals, volunteers, parents and children every year. She’s served as a member of: the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse & Exploitation, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Safe Sport Working Group, Vice President Biden’s Gun Violence Task Force, LexisNexis/First Advantage’ Customer Advisory Board, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Safe to Compete Working Group.


Prior to coming to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, she served as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Wisconsin for 11 years where she secured and administered collaborative local, statewide and federal violence prevention initiatives working with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the Department of Human Services, and local law enforcement. She’s served as an Executive Committee Member of the Eau Claire YMCA, President of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Wisconsin, a founding board member of the Boys and Girls Club of the Greater Chippewa Valley, and as Nationwide Leadership Council Vice-Chair, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. After graduating from the University of Iowa she served for three years as a Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Victims’ Advocate. She resides in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

[i] Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science, 341, 976–980. doi: 10.1126/science.1238041. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2016). Building Core Capabilities for Life: The Science Behind the Skills Adults Need to Succeed in Parenting and in the Workplace. Retrieved from:

[ii] Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2016). Building Core Capabilities for Life: The Science Behind the Skills Adults Need to Succeed in Parenting and in the Workplace. Retrieved from:

[iii] Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. Science, 341, 976–980. doi: 10.1126/science.1238041

[iv] Hopper, E. K., Bassuk, E. L., & Olivet, J. (2010). Shelter from the storm: Trauma-informed care in homeless service settings. The Open Health Services and Policy Journal, 3, 80-100.

[v] National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. (2015). A Trauma Primer for Juvenile Probation and Juvenile Detention Staff. Retrieved from:

[vi] Western Massachusetts Training Consortium. (2012). The Integration of Trauma-Informed Care

in the Family Partner Program. Retrieved from:

[vii] National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 2015

[viii] Richburg-Hayes, L.; Anzelone, C.; Dechausay, N.; Datta, S.; Fiorillo, A.; Potok, L.; Darling, M.; Balz, J. (2014). Behavioral Economics and Social Policy: Designing Innovative Solutions for Programs Supported by the Administration for Children and Families. OPRE Report 2014-16a. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from: