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Head Start Program Uses Brain Science to Help Kids Heal

Mar 20, 2014, 3:40 PM, Posted by Jane Isaacs Lowe

In the late 1990s, a major study of adverse childhood experiences by Kaiser Permanente in California found that people who had been exposed to traumatic events such as violence or abuse during childhood were much more likely to have serious health problems as adults. Over the next decade, advances in neuroscience explained how childhood trauma can harm brain development and change the way kids feel and act in response to even normal events in their lives.

So, what to do? How do you protect or heal vulnerable children? An article on an innovative pre-school program in the Fixes column of yesterday's New York Times is an example of some solutions that are starting to emerge.

In 2010, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) partnered with local funders and Crittenton Children's Center in Kansas City, Mo. to pilot a new kind of Head Start program that would provide caring support to pre-schoolers exposed to traumatic events—homelessness, abuse, the loss of a parent, for example. The idea was to create a web of support among all of the adults who would interact with kids throughout their day, including parents, teachers, administrators, even the school bus driver. The school would also give kids specific tools to help them deal with their emotions in a healthy way and build resilience.

Head Start Trauma Smart wanted to ensure that the children would master the skills they need by the time they start kindergarten, because kids who are already falling behind in kindergarten have a much harder time succeeding in school and living a healthy life. The results of the pilot were so promising that in 2013 RWJF gave Crittenton Children's Center a $2.3 million grant to expand the Head Start Trauma Smart model throughout the state of Missouri. 

Watch a new video documenting how Head Start Trauma Smart works. Hear some of the stories of kids who have been exposed to traumatic events that are almost unimaginable and of the caring adults who are helping them heal. 

The parents and school staff are trailblazers, doing inspired and inspiring work to help bring out the best in each and every child. And while there is nothing that they are doing in Missouri’s Head Start programs that couldn’t be done in every community, it’s not easy to get systems of care to adopt this kind of change.

New York Times columnist David Bornstein explains why this program is so significant. “Trauma interventions can be highly effective but the challenge today is extending them from therapeutic settings—which are limited and expensive—into the broad systems that serve larger numbers of children.”

Here at RWJF we think a lot about what it takes to build a culture of health in America. There are few better examples than the Head Start Trauma Smart pre-school, where every child has the chance to thrive, and every adult who crosses their path has an opportunity to be a positive influence. And where great ideas that improve health spread to more communities where they can help more families in need.

Address Toxic Stress in Vulnerable Children and Families for a Healthier America

Jun 21, 2013, 1:43 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Susan Dentzer

“Speed kills,” warns the traditional highway sign about the dangers of haste and traffic deaths. Now, we know that stress kills, too.

Toxic stress, at any rate. The human body’s response to normal amounts of stress—say, a bad day at the office—is likely to be brief increases in the heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. But a toxic stress response, stemming from exposure to a major shock or prolonged adversity such as physical or emotional abuse, can wreak far more havoc.         

In children, science now shows that toxic stress can disrupt the developing brain and organ systems. The accumulated lifelong toll of stress-related hormones sharply raises the risk of chronic diseases in adulthood, ranging from heart disease and diabetes to depression and atherosclerosis.

Thus, the message from a panel of experts to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America was at once simple and challenging: Create a healthier environment for—and increase coping mechanisms and resilience in—the nation’s most vulnerable and stress-ridden children and families.

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Ending a Childhood Disease

Jun 10, 2013, 10:48 AM, Posted by Anna Heling, Kristin Schubert

Poverty Epidemic Blog Graphic

We rarely think of poverty as a disease. It doesn’t trace back to a microbe, it doesn’t transmit through coughs or sneezes. But for children, the effects of poverty can have lifelong implications as devastating as many diseases.

As author Perri Klass, MD, noted recently in The New York Times, the stress and limitations that often accompany childhood poverty can influence children’s life trajectories, change their dispositions, blunt their brain development, and even alter their genes.

Today we’re in the midst of a poverty epidemic not seen since the Depression. We have more kids living in poverty now than we have had for generations. That’s scary, especially now that we know what poverty does to you neurologically, biologically, and socially. A child’s early development has huge implications on health for when that child is 20 years old, or even 30, 40, or 50 years old.

So what can we do about it? To start, we need to look holistically at who is around to support a child. Who is giving care to make sure a child can, as Klass puts it, “grow toward the light”? As a society, we need to ask how we can make sure families have the supports they need to give the best care to their child, even as they face the trials of poverty.

Support for lifting children and families out of poverty often gets wrapped up in asking who’s accountable for the situation, or the politics around a handout versus picking yourself up from your bootstraps. The conversation—and action—could get further if we set aside these polarizations and approached the problem, instead, as an early childhood disease. There’s a huge need for that conversation to happen. We all have a stake in this. It’s costly to pay for poor health outcomes that we know stem from trauma and adversity early in life. Whether you care from an economic perspective or you care from a moral one, recognizing poverty as a childhood disease is imperative to the future wellbeing and productivity of our society.

Early childhood is a primary focus of the 2013 Commission to Build a Healthier America, which meets June 19 in Washington, D.C. 

Learn more and register for the public meeting