The Strugglers and the Thrivers

In this excerpt from Born Anxious, Daniel Keating sketches his journey in trying to understand why some kids seem destined to thrive while others struggle – sometimes by acting out, sometimes by retreating, and sometimes doing both in quick succession.  Rooted in his experiences from elementary school onward, he tells how he and his research collaborators identified a central mystery of childhood thriving and struggling, and the lifelong impact that it has – and what we can do to break this cycle.   

Born Anxious

The summer after I turned fifteen, I helped out at a literacy program in one of the most economically distressed neighborhoods in my home town, Baltimore. There I met and tutored a boy named Jason. I came to know Jason pretty well. Indeed, I have never forgotten him, for he awakened in me the feeling of déjà vu.

Jason wanted to learn. He tried his best to grasp what I was trying to teach, although without much success. It seemed as if the process of learning, more than the material itself, eluded him. I had no idea how to break through to help him.

But Jason stood out in my mind for another reason. He was prone to outbursts. They came on suddenly, like a summer storm. When they occurred, he’d angrily lash out at another child or even at one of the counselors. Other days, instead of lashing out, he’d withdraw so completely that he’d refuse to ac- knowledge anyone.

That summer, I heard over and over again from the adults around us about what it meant to grow up like Jason, in a tough neighborhood, deprived of opportunity. I’m sure they told us that to make sure that kids like me were never uncharitable toward kids like him. But I stayed quiet whenever this explanation was offered. And I knew why. Because of a boy named David.

David had been my classmate at the parochial elementary school we both attended. One day, when I was a fourth-grader, I was asked to take charge of our boisterous class a few afternoons a week. (I know this sounds strange, but back then our parochial school, like many others at the time, was overcrowded and understaffed.) Before I took over the class, I would have described David as a kid like me. He came from the same kind of suburban, middle-class, education-oriented family. He seemed to be a pretty good student. It was only when I took charge that I began to notice the ways in which David stood out. Most obviously, he switched without warning from friendly and easygoing to angry and out of control. His outbursts were often triggered by something as innocuous as a small change in what we were working on in the class. And once unraveled, he took a long time to calm down.

I had no idea how to handle David. To be honest, he frightened most of my classmates and me with his temper. And I noticed how hard it was for him to stay focused on the schoolwork that the teacher had given the class to work on.

I lost touch with both Jason and David over the years, but I never stopped thinking about them, because every once in a while, when I was doing tutoring or leading a Scout troop in college, I ran across another kid just like them. When I did, I wondered what had happened in their lives to make them the way they were. I sensed that no person could live his life at such a fevered pitch without exhausting himself, not to mention sabotaging himself when it came to schoolwork, friendships, and just day-to-day-life chores. Why couldn’t these kids see that as well and just get control of themselves? Although I didn’t know it then, the pattern of behavior I was trying to understand did not occur only with boys. It often plays out a bit differently in girls, but the underlying patterns are the same.

Not surprisingly, when it came time to pick a college major, I was irresistibly drawn to psychology and went on to earn a PhD in developmental psychology—which aims to understand the many influences that shape our lives. While others struggled to figure out the intellectual question they wanted to spend their lives studying, I already knew mine. I was going to try to figure out the Jasons and Davids of the world.

I started with the fact that kids like them manifested three observable characteristics: they couldn’t sit still in a classroom, couldn’t concentrate, and couldn’t control their emotions or their attention. It was easy to rush to the conclusion that these issues sprang from some very real intellectual deficit that made learning frustrating and painful. In other words, if they found learning easier and less draining, they’d calm down.

Yet some of these same kids were clearly smart by most measures. They could understand and talk about ideas, often with considerable maturity and insight, even though you wouldn’t know that from looking at their school records. And most of them manifested the same volatility in the schoolyard that they did in the classroom. What they all shared, I kept feeling, was not some common intellectual or learning deficit but something that drove them off the rails at critical moments, in unpredictable ways.

Kids like me, I began to believe, rarely experienced these kinds of derailments, and that allowed us to deal with life’s frustrations without getting waylaid on the path to success, while kids like Jason and David somehow always did.

Over time, as I read the research of colleagues and began to do some of my own, I developed ever greater empathy for all the Davids and Jasons. Nothing went smoothly for them— not school, not social relationships, not work. Late at night, after going through mounds of data, I began to wonder if some cruel evolutionary sorting process was going on. Kids like me seemed almost destined to thrive in life—and to do so with assurance. Kids like David and Jason seemed destined to struggle through life. It was still just a notion: I didn’t yet have the re- search to back it up, but I couldn’t set it aside. The unfairness of it haunted me.

Fast-forward some twenty years to the early 1990s. Mountains of research on child development and the building blocks of learning and thinking, including my own, still had not yielded one good, comprehensive explanation. Nor had the millions of dollars spent on early childhood education and school reform substantially closed the academic gap between what I continued to think of as strugglers and thrivers. I knew the answer couldn’t be just economic: some kids in very poor neighborhoods thrived and some kids from middle-class, upper-middle-class, and even wealthy families struggled. We could not predict with any real success which kids would fall into which category. Nor did we understand why. All we knew was that something was going on that was beyond the control of schools and teachers and that it couldn’t fully resolve itself even with early childhood intervention.

Indeed, something was going on. But as this book will explain, research by our network led me to believe that this something, alas, had altered the Davids and Jasons of the world long before they started school—indeed, possibly as early as the womb or no later than the first year of life. That’s why in many cases early educational programs were not as effective as we had hoped. They, and many others, carry a hidden burden that has gotten into their very biology—affecting, as we will see, the way that they encounter and deal with stress and anxiety every day of their lives. My hope in writing this book is that as knowledge of the problem becomes disseminated, we will better understand the source of their struggles and how to break the cycle that holds them back. Because there are helpful actions parents, schools, and society can take. There are actions that kids like David and Jason can take, to help them control and even prevent the derailments, giving them the same chance to thrive that kids without this burden have had. There is even the possibility that if this help is offered early enough, and under the right conditions, what began as a disadvantage can be turned into an advantage, and kids like David and Jason can mature into some of the strongest candidates for positions of leadership in society.

But first we had to fully unravel the mystery of what exactly was holding these kids back. What was happening in the womb or the first year of life that controlled this sorting process?

Daniel P. Keating is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and received his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. Keating has conducted research at leading North American universities; at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute; and with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, where he was a fellow for two decades and led the program in human development. He focuses on developmental differences: cognitive, social, emotional, and in physical and mental health. He resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Born Anxious Daniel Keating jacket
Copyright 2017 Daniel P. Keating. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.