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University of Utah Professor Asks Could Stressful Environments Have Positive Outcomes On Kids?

Erik Neumann
Dr. Bruce Ellis is a professor of psychology and anthropology at the University of Utah.

A psychologist at University of Utah is examining whether growing up in stressful environments could be positive for kids.

The article published in the current issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science makes the case that most studies about kids’ development focus almost entirely on how living in stressful environments can cause kids harm. But that’s not the full picture.  

"There’s another half the story which is that kids that grow up under conditions of disadvantage also develop specialized skills and abilities that are relevant to surviving and potentially thriving in those environments," says Dr. Bruce Ellis. 

Ellis is a developmental psychologist and a professor at the University of Utah. He is one of the authors of the new paper.

Ellis writes about how exposure to stress is seen as an adaptive tool in the animal world that improves attention, memory, and problem solving. But with humans, and specifically kids, it’s simply seen as problematic.

"Basically the way these kids are viewed is as if they’re broken and they need to be fixed," he says. 

Ellis is quick to acknowledge that stressful environments can have real negative consequences for kids. However, he says, understanding the types of skills they develop in challenging situations could offer a way to redesign classrooms and curriculums to capitalize on their strengths.

"By any measure they do worse in school. But they don’t have to do worse in school. Part of the problem is schools are largely a mismatch for their skills and abilities," Ellis says. 

Ellis says this shift in thinking about kids’ development is new.

The next step in his research will be to start interviewing kids who have grown up in difficult environments in the Salt Lake City area.

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