Stress, Resilience, and Race

A Guide for Early Childhood Educators

What is Stress?


  • — “ The action or effect of a force exerted within or upon an object
  • — To emphasize or accent
  • — Physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation
  • — A particular relationship between an environmental demand and a person (family) that is appraised as taxing or exceeding one’s (family’s) resources and endangering one’s (family’s) well being. –Lazarus and Folkman” [2]

There are two different stages of stress. Stage one involves the “stressors” or “events or environmental demands” [2] that people encounter in their day-to-day lives such as exam stress, arguments with spouses, work overload or financial problems. People perceive these stressors in many different ways and the impact of the stress varies for every individual and family. Stage two is “distress.” This stage involves both emotional responses to stress, most commonly anger, sadness, or anxiety and physical responses such as susceptibility to illness, increased heart rate, sweating, headaches, or nausea. [2]

You may have gathered by now that stress can mean something different for every person and reactions to and the impact of stressors can vary per person based on age, gender, personal characteristics, environmental circumstances, and access to support systems. Support schemata defines how we perceive our surroundings and the resources that we have and how the people in our world will respond and help us in situations of stress or crisis. Our schemata affects our interpretation of stressors and how resilient and adaptable we are able to be.

There is a difference between stressors and risks. Stressors are “environmental demands that are appraised as stressful.” [2] Risks are “conditions that predispose a person or group to negative or undesirable outcomes.” [2] In our society, racism is a risk that predisposes minority children and families to many inequalities and negative outcomes across socioeconomic statuses and levels of education.

There are four different patterns of stressors:

  • Acute stressors are time limited and are easiest to overcome.
  • Stressor sequences involve a domino effect of stressors such as during a natural disaster, you will have to deal with more than just the stress of the event itself, you also have additional stressors such as loss of loved ones, belongings, and getting your life back together.
  • Chronic stressors are long term and may never go away.
  • Chronic-Intermittent stressors are long term stressors, such as Multiple Sclerosis or some other illnesses, that are always present but the effects and impact of stress will wax and wane. [2]

Long term, chronic stress is much more detrimental to the physical, emotional, and relational health of individuals and families and can often lead to family crisis. Family crisis is “a disturbance in the equilibrium that is so overwhelming, a pressure that is so severe, or a change that is so acute that the family system is blocked, immobilized, and incapacitated.” [2] When crisis is reached, it is much more difficult to return to a more normal state. It is important to intervene and provide support whenever possible to prevent children and families from reaching a state of crisis.

Social Support


“Social support is not a single concept, but rather is a category of concepts related to the beneficial effects of social relationships” [3]

Social networks look different for every individual and family. The size, proximity, and abilities to provide support of your social network are important factors that determine how successful your family can be in times of stress or crisis.

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There are three types of social support:

  • Emotional support: “expressing care and concern for those in need” [3] –example- Assuring loved ones that you will always be there for them no matter what life brings.
  • Informational support: “gathering information from those around you in order to make a task more manageable” [3] –example- Giving parents information about discipline or developmentally appropriate language to make it easier for them to talk to their child who may not be listening well.
  • Instrumental support: “more tangible support in order to get us through our day to day lives” [3] –example- offering to babysit for a family who has no friends or family in the area.

People may not always be willing to directly ask for assistance or show that they are in a time of crisis. They may be more indirect in showing signs of distress so it is important for teachers to get to know the children and families in their classrooms and be aware of even small changes in physical, social, or emotional well being.

Effects of Racism as a Chronic Stressor

How Racism Impacts Pregnancy Outcomes

"The life-course perspective posits that birth outcomes are the product of not simply the nine months of pregnancy, but really the entire life course of a woman. And the corollary for that is, disparity in birth outcomes is really the consequences not only of differential exposures during pregnancy, but really the differential experiences across the life-course of women of color…So if we’re serious about improving birth outcomes and reducing disparities, we’ve got to start taking care of woman before pregnancy and not just talking about that one visit three months pre-conceptionally; I’m talking about when she’s a baby inside her mother’s womb, an infant, and then a child, an adolescent and really taking care of women and families across their life course." –Michael Lu, When the Bough Breaks [6]

These issues are not far from home, racism is affecting children and families right here in Wisconsin.

"It was a fairly dramatic study done in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where they sent black and white men, all with identical resumes to apply for 350 entry-level jobs. What this study found was that a black male with a clean record, no criminal record, was less likely to be offered a job than a white male with a felony conviction. So it was a dramatic example of – in the year 2004 – of the persistence of discrimination in American society." -David Williams, When the Bough Breaks [6]

Race to Equity

In 2013, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families completed a study and released a 'Race to Equity' report detailing the extensive racial disparities that “differentiate the white and black experience in Dane County, Wisconsin.” [5] The goal of Race to Equity is to raise awareness in the state of Wisconsin, and more specifically in Dane County, of the shocking inequalities surrounding educational achievement and graduation rates, incarceration rates, employment and economic issues, and family success.

"The total population of Dane County, as reported in the 2010 Census, was just over 488,000. Of that total, African Americans numbered 31,300, or about 6.5%...Between 2000 and 2010, the county’s total African American population increased by almost 50%, from 20,241 to 31,300." [5]

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“In several national comparison studies looking at juvenile and adult justice system data, Wisconsin and Dane County were frequently ranked among the jurisdictions having the widest arrest and incarceration disparities in the country. Similarly, the growing local concern over the educational achievement gap here in Dane County has brought to light some distressingly wide racial disparity numbers in county test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance.” [5]
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As Dane County is home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin State Capitol, the population of Madison and Dane County as a whole is largely well-educated with a strong and competent workforce, a quality public school system, high employment rates, and a generally stable and successful local economy.

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“The desire to understand the seeming paradox between reputation and reality was an important motive behind the creation of the Race to Equity Project. Could a place as prosperous, resourceful, and progressive as Dane County also be home to some of the most profound, pervasive, and persistent racial disparities in the country?” [5]

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"Racism is a societal level problem. It’s institutionalized; it’s part of our educational system; it’s part of our media; it’s part of our culture. It’s one of the struts that reinforces inequality in the society we live in." –Richard David, When the Bough Breaks [6]

What is Resilience?


“Resilience is the family’s ability to cultivate strengths to positively meet the challenges of life.” [National Network for Family Resiliency, 1993] [4]

There are no “universal rules” for resilience as every individual is unique and has their own set of needs and responses to stressors. Although there are no rules for resilience, it is extremely critical for vulnerable or minority families to seek support and learn to act in resilient ways. Overcoming racism and systemic inequality requires education and intervention. Helping vulnerable families “learn positive coping skills reduces the need for expensive, crisis-level services.” [4]

Individuals and families that have the most success in trying times and exhibit the most resilient behavior tend to be optimistic, resourceful, and determined. When resilient individuals or families encounter obstacles, they are more likely to continue to remain positive and try again in a new way. Resilient individuals and families may have superior problem-solving abilities and may be more likely to seek social support, employ cooperation, and utilize creative brainstorming.

Successful, resilient families employ:

  • “Cohesion: facilitates togetherness and individuality
  • Adaptability: balances flexibility and stability
  • Communication: communicates openly and consistently” [4]

So, what can we do to help?

It all starts with educating the children in our classrooms!

Talking to children about race and diversity can be intimidating. As a society, we tend to believe that children do not notice race, therefore we generally believe that talking to children about race will put ideas into their head, cause them to be more judgmental or aware of race issues before they are ready, and overall, cause more harm than good. In reality, “research clearly shows that children not only recognize race from a very young age, but also develop racial biases by ages three to five that do not necessarily resemble the racial attitudes of adults in their lives.” [7]

As an educator, it is important to focus on facts and non-judgmental observations when discussing diversity with children. Removing personal biases, judgments, or insecurities from your words and actions is crucial. Preschool aged children are developmentally unique and entering a stage in their lives where the world is no longer solely about themselves. At this developmental stage children are now able to observe, interact with, and begin to understand other people. “Toddlers as young as two years use racial categories to reason about people’s behaviors, and numerous studies show that three- to five-year-olds not only categorize people by race, but express bias based on race.” [7] As preschool teachers, it is important to foster this curiosity and respond to their questions with fact based, non-biased answers. Do not ignore a child's questions or shut down conversation. [7] Educate yourself on the topic so that you can respond in a thoughtful and fact based way. It is also important to react thoughtfully and without judgment. When adults over-react or tell children that what they are observing is not socially acceptable, the children begin to form judgments and biases towards people who are different from themselves. Although this is generally not the intention, these adult reactions based on years of learned social and racial attitudes and pressures are inherently passing on these undesired racial perceptions to the next generation.

It is also crucial to discuss race and diversity with developmentally appropriate language and concepts. Adults tend to talk about racism as if it is nonexistent or a thing of the past and focus on the celebration of culture and the happiness of diversity. [7] While these are important topics to discuss, it is not appropriate to ignore the systemic inequities that minorities face, as we are working to overcome these issues, not perpetuate them. While it may be challenging, it is possible to use simple language to portray these issues while fostering complex, diversity oriented, problem-solving, and empowered thinkers in every classroom who may someday find a way to overcome the broken and unequal system in which we are currently living.

Books to Read in Your Classroom [1]


[1] "50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know." Cooperative Children's Book Center, 2015. Web. <>.

[2] Burkholder, Kristy. “Stress, Coping, and Diversity of Experience.” Human Development and Family Studies 516: Family Stress and Resilience Lecture. Sep. 2015.

[3] Burkholder, Kristy. “Social Support and Its Relationship to Stress and Resilience.” Human Development and Family Studies 516: Family Stress and Resilience Lecture. Sep. 2015.

[4] Burkholder, Kristy. “Human Resilience and Positive Psychology.” Human Development and Family Studies 516: Family Stress and Resilience Lecture. Sep. 2015.

[5] "Race to Equity: A Baseline Report on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County." The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, 2013. <>.

[6] "Unnatural Causes Documentary Series: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?" When the Bough Breaks. California Newsreel, 2008. <>.

[7] Winkler, Erin N. "Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race." PACE 3.3 (2009). Print.

Graphs from Race to Equity report [5]

Book images and descriptions from