The Inoculation Effect

The Inoculation Effect happens when a child, in disadvantaged circumstances, is guided through childhood by his/her parents to particular schools, churches, out-of-school programs, enrichment and other experiences that thereby protect and guide the child through the disadvantage.   Family stability and routines with clear and pronounced expectations of appropriate behavior and future direction also play a part.

I heard this term recently at a data-mapping presentation at The Boston Foundation.  It resonated with me because I had that kind of childhood and I did the same for my children. 

The zip codes of my childhood and my children’s childhoods didn’t determine or cement our destinies.  The same was true for my husband, whose mother made the choice of an elementary school for him that predisposed him to getting into and graduating from the rigorous and prestigious Boston Latin School.  There were only 7 blacks in his graduating class at BLS.

Like many of our friends and relatives, we were in the ghetto but not of the ghetto except that we were*.  Dozens of inoculators peppered our childhoods.  We could not stray but so far.  Plus there were consistent bits of luck and numerous blessings.  Thank you to everyone:

  • Our parents (mother, father and, in my case, step-father)

  • Our extended family

  • Our neighbors

  • Our teachers

  • Our ministers

  • Our coaches

  • Our librarians

  • Etcetera


I just finished reading a book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough. The book examines which traits and skills lead to success and how they develop in childhood.   Tough examines the importance of helping a child to develop character personality traits, including:

  • Persistence

  • Self-control

  • Curiosity

  • Conscientiousness

  • Grit

  • Self-Confidence

He looks at how these success skills & traits develop in childhood and what kind of interventions might help children get better at them.  Two of the most important “executive functions” as he calls them are cognitive flexibility and cognitive self-control.  He also looks at the importance of learning to manage failure, something many kids, especially those from affluent backgrounds, are kept from experiencing in their academic lives where their road to success is paved and direct.

Among the many ideas How to Succeed share are:  a winning chess training program at a New York public school, the success and failures of KIPP schools, the impact of early stress on children’s brain development and adolescent behavior and adult success, and the triumph of students who’ve been able to turn around despite severely disadvantaged and compromised childhoods and family situations.  It also examines IQ and non-cognitive skills.  IQ is not all it’s cracked up to be and finishing college takes different skills than getting into college.

Here are a few quotes that resonated with me:

“Evans found mostly what you’d expect:  the higher the environmental-risk score, the higher the allostatic-load** score – unless a child’s mother was particularly responsive to her child.  If that was the case, the effect of all those environmental stressors, from overcrowding to poverty to family turmoil, was almost entirely eliminated.  “ (p32-33)

 “You have to find a way to separate yourself from your mistakes or your losses.  I try to teach my students that losing is something you do, not something you are.” (p116, Elizabeth Spiegel, chess teacher at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, NY)

“Still, it was a difficult semester for Kewauna.  She was always short of money and had to economize everywhere she could.  At one point, she ran out of money on her meal card and just didn’t eat for two days.  She was studying all the time, it felt like…But her hard work was reflected in her final grades that semester: two B pluses, one !, and, in biology, an A plus. When I spoke to her a few days before Christmas, she sounded a bit depleted, but proud too.  “No matter how overwhelming it is, no matter how exhausting it is, I’m not going to give up,” she said.  “I’m never the type to give up.  Even when I played hide-and-go-seek when I was little, I would be outside till eight o’clock, until I found 3everyone.  I don’t give up on nothing, no matter how hard.”  (p174)***

I recommend the book and I commend those of us who are caring and principled adults in children’s lives.


*We got the funk but not the junk.

**Allostatic-load measure incorporates blood pressure, level of stress hormones in urine and body mass index.

***Read the book to learn more how far Kewauna Lerma. Interestingly, I found that she had a Go Fund Me page to raise money for a semester at college.  Her goal was $1050 and she raised $1051. I wonder if the author of the book contributed.


Handling Rejection 


About Candelaria Silva

Candelaria Silva-Collins is a marketing, community outreach and programming consultant; writer; and trainer/facilitator who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. She has designed and facilitated workshops on a wide variety of topics including communication, facilitation, job search skills, team building, and parenting issues. She currently coordinates the Community Membership Program of the Huntington Theatre Company. Her work as Director of ACT Roxbury was profiled in several publications, including The Creative Communities Builders Handbook. Candelaria’s children’s stories, short stories, essays and reviews have been published in local and national publications and she is an active blogger. Her publications include the booklets, Handling Rejection; Pushing through Shyness: Networking Tips when You’re Shy, Slow to Warm Up or Just don’t Feel you Belong; and Real Questions about Sex & Relationships for Teens: A Discussion Guide for Parents. She has served on the boards of Goddard College, Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston Foundation for Architecture, and Discover Roxbury. She is currently Chair, Designators of the Henderson Foundation.

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