The Stanford Project on Adaptation and Resilience in Kids — the SPARK Lab — seeks to understand how adversity influences children's adaptation across various domains of functioning, ranging from school engagement and academic competence to positive peer relationships and prosocial behaviors. We strive to identify the biological, behavioral, and environmental processes that enable some disadvantaged children to demonstrate remarkable resilience, while placing others at risk for maladaptive outcomes, such as symptoms of anxiety and depression or disruptive behaviors.
We study how the interplay between children's biological sensitivity and the quality of the environments in which they grow and learn shapes children's health and well-being. In addition, we study how self-regulatory skills help children cope with daily challenges by enabling them to control their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Our work aims to identify how families and teachers can help children with differing biological reactivity profiles and self-regulatory capacities succeed over time.
Our research has important implications for children who come from diverse family, socio-economic, and ethnic backgrounds. We hope to apply our research findings to the design and implementation of prevention and intervention programs aimed at improving children's lives.
To be ready to learn, children need to be focused, engaged, and able to bounce back from setbacks. However, many children come to school with heightened or diminished physiological arousal due to exposure to poverty-related risks. While stress physiology plays a role in explaining how adversity relates to processes that support students’ cognitive development, there is a lack of studies of physiological stress response in educational settings. This review integrates relevant studies and offers future directions for research on the role of stress physiology in the school adaptation of elementary school students, focusing on these important questions: (a) What are the links between physiological stress response and learning-related skills and behaviors, and do they vary as a function of proximal and distal experiences outside of school? (b) How are school experiences associated with students’ physiological stress response and related cognitive and behavioral adaptations? (c) How can we leverage measures of students’ physiological stress response in evaluations of school-based interventions to better support the school success of every student? We hope to stimulate a new wave of research that will advance the science of developmental stress physiology, as well as improve the application of these findings in educational policy and practice.