Practice: A Case for Action and a Call for Innovation
In the time it takes you to read this sentence, more than 4,000 new neural connections are being formed in a young child’s brain.
The importance of the first few years of life cannot be overstated, as the architecture of a child’s brain is being developed at mind-boggling speed. Good and bad experiences make the difference – as do strong, stable, protective relationships that guide children through stressful events.
Stress and development
Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, emphasizes the importance of children having nurturing, stable and engaging relationships, which can factor into the three levels of stress.
According to Shonkoff, the first level is positive stress, such as when a child experiences a mild increase in hormone levels on the first day of child care or a visit to the doctor. Children learn adaptive skills to handle positive stress events when they have supportive relationships. Children are more vulnerable, he said, to tolerable stress because the event is more serious. Even then, the event is temporary and soothed by the child having supportive relationships.
Toxic stress is another story altogether. That is when a child experiences prolonged exposure to stressful events. In these cases, the child’s stress-response system is activated, and the child does not have supportive relationships to give comfort. The result is toxic stress that can lead to learning and health problems, including heart disease later in life.
Neglect also a stressor
Shonkoff also argues that neglect can be as powerful of an adverse experience as abuse and that child-serving agencies and organizations need to work to decrease the number and severity of adverse relationships and increase relationships that protect young children from the damaging effects of toxic stress.
Early learning symposia
Casey Family Programs is sponsoring a series of symposia to share some of the scientific evidence on early childhood development, which shows how crucial it is to give children good experiences and continuous, supportive relationships from the start. Armed with this evidence, we can advocate for policies and practices that address the needs of very young children who might come to the attention of public agencies.