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Supporting kids who face toxic stress

A conversation with Charles Cox

Research has found that what happens to people during childhood and adolescence can have surprisingly large effects on their adult experiences. An important example of these effects can be seen in people’s labor market outcomes. While people can always learn new skills in adulthood, research shows that the skills and knowledge people acquire before entering the labor market determine most of their earnings and work experience.

In a recent conversation in this series, we explored how toxic stress affects the biology and behavior of children and stays with them into their adult lives. A major obstacle to acquiring skills and knowledge in childhood is toxic stress, described as how a body reacts to ongoing, serious stress if not provided with the support necessary for coping. When children experience stress, they need healthy relationships with adults to help them process it. If they don’t have those relationships, the stress can affect their behaviors and habits in ways that are damaging into and throughout adulthood.

One proposed solution for reducing the effects of toxic stress is to improve relational health, which provides social and emotional support for children undergoing adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, and poverty. These circumstances are widespread to varying degrees; for instance, in 2021 the share of children living in poverty in Cleveland was 46 percent.1

To understand what it means to provide nurturing relationships, I spoke with Charles Cox, a family support specialist at The Ginn Academy for Say Yes to Education Cleveland. He shared with me how his organization provides resources to help disadvantaged children pursue educational goals. While the organization grants college scholarships, it also employs experts whose work it is to provide the type of relationships that science says children need to mitigate toxic stress.

Mr. Cox helped me understand the type of stress that affects the students he works with, how it holds them back, and what he does to try to help them navigate the obstacles that prevent a productive life. But first he told me how his organization does its work.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed. Listen to an extended version of this conversation.

Supporting higher education aspirations with more than money

Charles Cox

It was businessman and philanthropist George Weiss who founded Say Yes on the East Coast. Now they've spread out and its mission is to work with disadvantaged youth to give them better educational opportunities through the various services that we offer, as well as through paying actual scholarship dollars to help youth expand their educational goals or hopefully have a career.

We want to see kids go for higher education degrees and et cetera, but in Say Yes, we will support a child who wants to just get a skilled trade or go into other sectors. So we just really want to see kids who are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, be able to have the opportunities to go out and have success in the workforce.

Dionissi Aliprantis

So when I think about Say Yes, I know that the college scholarship is one big part of it, but it's not as simple as just putting that money out there for students. It's not just a matter of, we have this big scholarship and that's on its own going to change everything. And so when you think about all of the other services, can you tell me about those?

Charles Cox

Yeah. So you led me to a very key thing that we do at Say Yes. You're absolutely right. You can't just throw money at a situation and hopefully that solves everything.  You actually have to have the youth be able to graduate and take advantage of scholarships and things of that nature. And that's where a person like myself comes into the picture.

Through Say Yes, in each school building in Cleveland, we have what's called a Family Support Specialist. And that's my role. I am a family support specialist for the Ginn Academy family.  Now obviously, each support specialist, because it depends on what grade level you're in, does a little different things, but for the most part, we all kind of do the same things. And so we understand when we're dealing with at-risk or disadvantaged families.

One of the main reasons why a lot of those youth do not take advantage of scholarships and higher education is because they lack resources or there are other barriers there in place. And so that's why they put an individual like myself to kind of coordinate those resources and walk and support those families, so that we can all ultimately help this student A, first of all, graduate. And then B, take advantage of hopefully the scholarship dollars, so that they can open up other economic opportunities.

What toxic stress looks like for some

Dionissi Aliprantis

So, we want to talk about toxic stress.  There's this emerging science and evidence about how our bodies react to stress.  I'm curious if you could speak about some of the forms that takes with the students you work with.

Charles Cox

Sure. So I'm glad that we are now speaking about and doing the research on and really looking at toxic stress because I think as far as the African American community is concerned, that's been a key factor in our early mortality rates, if you will, because now we do totally understand if the body is under a lot of stress, often and for years, that has a toll on your health.

I think you and I were talking and I was letting you know that we had lost in our school five kids to gun violence, right?  And then I shared with you, how I was going on a home visit because this particular child had not been in school.  So I was just going to try to reach out to the family to kind of see what I could do to assist the family, and I ended up driving right in the middle of a shootout and this was broad daylight and these were real bullets. It wasn't a movie set, this was a real shootout. But what it made me do when I finally got to a safe area and I reflected on what the heck just happened, you have to remember these students, they deal with this type of stuff every day. This kid, the kid I was looking for, thank goodness his house was further down the street.  So I will go back and try, but that's that kid's street, right? And these were assault weapons that these kids were shooting.  And so, whether you were the guy next door, that's still on your street. That kid understands, "This is my environment." And you have to say, "Well, what do I do about this?"

I don't think people understand when you're living under that type of stress.  Our kids deal with more, sometimes within a seven day week, as far as stress and trauma, then you and I may deal with in six months or six years.

Sometimes helping takes patience and understanding

Dionissi Aliprantis

How much you would say that the obstacles or barriers [kids face] are very similar, and how much is there variability across children?

Charles Cox

Well for our population, what unfortunately is very similar with all of our students is the lack of resources. And often times with our student population, certain things that you or I may take for granted, a lot of our students, it's a struggle. And I'm talking even food, access to healthcare.

I'll give you an example. We had a kid who in my building was just very mean, and we really couldn't understand what was going on with this kid, but to make a long story short, his teeth were hurting. What he understood about his family dynamic was, "What, am I going go to my mother about my teeth? Nobody has money around here, so I just have to deal with it," right. So just to be able to get him aligned with a dentist. I have no idea what they did, but whatever they did, the kid's not as mean as he was. So I think that was pretty good.  And it could be as simple as that.  I think we don't really understand how our kids in certain communities really do not have the basics.

I remember when I sat down and I spoke with the kid about his toothache, already in his mind, he just kind of knew, "Well, this is just what I have to deal with, and that's just the way it is." And I felt so bad about that, right because my daughter knows, if anything's aching, I'm going to get you what you need, and that wasn't that child's reality, right. And so that's where my role, I feel, is very important, to be able to reach out and explain to a family. And you have to understand sometimes, just because a family may be in need, sometimes people don't really always want to talk about, that they don't have, you know?

And so that's where I feel that you really have to have a lot of empathy. You really have to be able to bear yourself to a family and just let them know, "Hey, I'm here to help and I understand."

Dionissi Aliprantis

Can you talk about some of the ways that you think people might be a little bit disillusioned, or even some of the ways that you have found success in reaching out to people?

Charles Cox

I think sometimes people don't really realize how people feel in that moment. And I'm just going to be quite frank with you: I think some of our families have had some negative experiences with some of the social service agencies, because I know even when I was at Children and Family Services, we were starting to change our philosophy, right. Yes, we're meeting families in crisis. Yes, there's some bad things that have happened to a kid. You still have to treat these people like humans and you still have to have some empathy and you have to meet them where they are, but that wasn't always the case.

So when you're dealing with the community that I'm dealing with, you're talking about individuals who may have not been treated so well by an agency. They may have had a bad experience.  I say that the main thing that you have to remind yourself is “if I were in their shoes.”  And I don't think most professionals think about it that way, because I mean, you get your master's in this, and then I got a certificate in this. And yeah, you can get all that type of training, but you have to just remind yourself, if I was in that individual's shoes, how would I feel? Would I be so nice right now? When you keep that mentality, people pick up on that.

Using relationships as a springboard to career planning

Dionissi Aliprantis

When you think about supporting kids dealing with this kind of toxic stress, what are the levers we can pull individually, as groups, as organizations, as an entire society? I'm thinking of the kid on that street.  What can we do as a society? What can you and I do for that kid?

Charles Cox

I think that those of us who have attained at least a certain level of education, a certain level of success for ourselves, we have to all agree that we're not the experts on things we don't know anything about. We don't live in their shoes. So one thing I try to not do, is to act like I'm the expert on their life. I have to understand their life experience. So, meeting people where they are, because we could go and try to push some things on them, "Oh no, look, I want to give you this nurture. I want to give you this and that." And the kids will be, "Man, that's corny. I don't need that. What are you talking about?"

So anytime you're writing a program or anything of that, you really do need to have people who can assist you, who know how to meet people where they are. And if you don't get that, I don't care how much money you put into a program. I don't care how many shiny glossy brochures and how cute it looks. If you're not meeting people right where they are, and if you do not know how to communicate with the people that you're working with, you're going to be frustrated, wondering, “What are we doing wrong?”

Dionissi Aliprantis

What would make your pitch more effective when trying to convince a student to think more about their career and their long-term employment?

Charles Cox

A lot of kids think that it's college or bust. Thank goodness, we have found four new programs for just skilled trades. You're going to need more skilled tradesmen than you're going to need people with four-year degrees. That's just the bottom line, right. And sometimes our kids don't make that connection. A lot of them, believe it or not, don't even see that a skilled trade as a viable career move. So there's that level of just not knowing within the community. They don't know what's out there for them.

So the pitch that I try to use with my kids is, first things first, you have a right to look at, what are you interested in? And do you know, I get the blankest looks sometimes.  I sit across from 16-, 17-year-olds and I go, "Well, what do you want to do?" And they'll give me this blank look, "I don't know." "So well, have you ever thought about it?" "No." And they're not lying.

So one thing I try to sell them on is, even if you weren't the best student in school, you still have the right. You still should look at what is important to you and what would you like to learn more about? What would you like to do? Do you know so many of our kids have not even had an adult sit down with them and have that discussion. So my pitch to a lot of them is, "Do something that you feel you can do in your heart. You have a talent, you have a skill, let's tap into that," right. And there's almost like, I see the light bulb go off.

And then I say to them, "All right, I'm going to give you a small homework assignment. It's not major.  Pick five things that you think you're good at or if there's five things you think you might be interested in and I want you to report back to me."

"Well, how would I do that?" "You're going to Google it.  I want you to know more about it." And the reason I'm doing that, I'm doing some career planning with them. I tell them, "And as you read about this career or job that you may be interested in, think about, can you see yourself doing it?"

So that's where I start with a lot of our kids, because a large percentage of my youth have never thought about the future. When I'm walking out the door and there's people shooting outside and this dude, I know this dude sell drugs. I mean, you're not thinking about the future, unfortunately.

Dionissi Aliprantis

What I'm hearing a lot from what you're saying is– a little bit of time with the right person, at some of these critical junctures can really change people's career or educational trajectories.

Charles Cox


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the participants and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Charles Cox

Family Support Specialist
Ginn Academy
for Say Yes to Education Cleveland

Charles Cox is a family support specialist at The Ginn Academy for Say Yes to Education Cleveland. Say Yes to Education is a nonprofit that galvanizes cities around the goals of every public-school student not only graduating high school but doing so with the supports to attain, afford, and complete a postsecondary education. At the heart of Say Yes is a powerful incentive: the prospect of a college scholarship. The Ginn Academy is an all-boys high school in Cleveland, Ohio, founded by the legendary football coach Ted Ginn Sr., where students are guided by scholarship, leadership, and service to all of humanity.

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