This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.
Early life experiences lay the foundation for mental development as well as general health and well-being. Having a loving family environment, exposure to healthy habits such as nutritious eating or exercise and socioeconomic stability are good indicators for healthy psychological and physiological development. Not surprising news. The reality, however, is that not all children grow up in an environment that checks all of these boxes. What happens to kids who face difficulties like poverty or neglect early in life?
Unfortunately it is not good. Neurobiological and social research show that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) increase the risk of developing mental and physical health issues. ACEs include being abused as a child or exposed to a parent’s violence or drug abuse, or loss of a parent through divorce, mental illness or incarceration. These “stressful environments impact children’s emotional development, mental health, cognition and their ability to learn,” states Dr. Darcy Lowell of Child First, a Connecticut-based home-visit program that works with at risk children between the prenatal period and the age of five.
“Across the general population, one in four children will experience a significantly a traumatic incident before they are four. Fifty percent of those children will experience that three or four times,” explains Janine Hron C.E.O. of the Crittenton Children’s Center in Kansas City, Missouri, home to the trauma intervention program Head Start-Trauma Smart.
The statistics are staggering. So what can be done?
“When children are exposed to trauma, it stops their brain from progressing along the normal track,” says Hron. “The good news is that science has informed us that the brain is adaptable and is capable of healing.” The challenge is determining how to nurture this healing process. Using different models, Child First and Head Start-Trauma Smart, both Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) supported programs, are doing just that.
“Head Start-Trauma Smart is a model for addressing and developing practical skills in communities exposed to stressful trauma,” explains Hron. Working in Head Start classrooms, the Trauma Smart model “starts by creating a common frame of reference to enable community members to define, recognize and cope with stress and trauma. This includes everyone – from the children and their parents, to the teachers, bus drivers and school custodians.” Once the adults understand how to build their own resilience, they can begin helping the children.
“Behaviorally, children may internalize the effects of trauma becoming withdrawn or developing somatic symptoms; others externalize by becoming erratic or impulsive. Neither is healthy. Using our Trauma Smart model, Head Start teachers learn to guide the child through their ‘big feelings’, validating the emotions and letting the child steer the process. The improvements we see in these children, and the adults, are inspiring.”
While Head Start-Trauma Smart focuses on the classroom environment, Child First focuses on the family unit. “[We know that] if you have a primary care giver who has a nurturing, responsive relationship with the child, that relationship actually prevents the [stress induced] brain damage.” Child First works to stabilize the family environment by making home visits with the families of at risk children. The Child First team, comprising a mental health clinician and a care coordinator, assesses the family’s needs, helps educate the parents or caregiver and directs the family to assistance and resources. With the help of RWJF, Child First will be expanding its model to other states this year.
These programs and others are just a fraction of a growing network of leaders, educators and social service and health care organizations focused on mitigating the effects of adverse childhood experiences. But there is always more work to be done. “We are interested in creating a network, a learning collaborative of people working in different sectors who share a vision toward preventing early adversity from happening in the first place, but also creating treatment and intervention that is sensitive and trauma-informed for those who have experienced it,” says Martha Davis, senior program officer at RWJF.
How do you think your experiences have affected your health and development? What has helped you build resilience? Do you have other ideas about how the community can help prevent or address ACEs? Leave a comment below and help get the conversation flowing.
If learning about ACEs and brain development has made you curious about the brain, there are several opportunities to contribute to brain research at SciStarter, an online hotspot for citizen science. If you are a parent with a baby or young child, check out LookIt. Hosted by MIT, parents complete an online activity with their child that will help scientists understand how young children understand their world. Does the bigger picture of cognition interest you? Project Implicit is an international non-profit research effort aimed at understanding psychological issues including mental health. Or join ACEs Connection, a social network focused on ACE concepts at international, national, state or local levels.
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Head Start-Trauma Smart