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Supporting Families to Succeed

Jun 30, 2014, 9:31 AM, Posted by Jane Isaacs Lowe, Martha Davis

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It has been more than 15 years since the Centers for Disease Control published the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) study. What we learned from that study, and then subsequent research, is that sustained exposure to toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences—including abuse, neglect, neighborhood violence and chronic poverty—without the support of an engaged supportive parent or adult caretaker, can have serious extended effects on children’s subsequent development and success in life. This stress, without intervention, can lead to a lifetime of poorer health, including chronic diseases in adulthood, such as heart disease and diabetes.

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement calling on pediatricians to become leaders in an effort to decrease children’s exposure to toxic stress and to mitigate its negative effects. They acknowledged how much science had taught us about how our environment affects our “learning capacities, adaptive behaviors, lifelong physical and mental health, and adult productivity.” The statement was a significant shift in the conversation. It provided a biological framework and imperative for why we must do something about adverse childhood experiences now.

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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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Trumping ACEs: Building Resilience and Better Health in Kids and Families Experiencing Trauma

Jun 19, 2013, 4:18 PM, Posted by Susan Promislo

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Fifteen years ago the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study found that children exposed to traumatic events were more likely to develop mental and behavioral health problems like depression and addiction. They were also more likely to have physical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.

Today, based on that evidence, we are witnessing a health revolution.

An op-ed published today in The Philadelphia Inquirer highlights a recent summit and ongoing efforts in Philadelphia to raise awareness about the negative impact of ACEs on health, education, and other outcomes. The piece states:

Neuroscientists have found that traumatic childhood events like abuse and neglect can create dangerous levels of stress and derail healthy brain development, putting young brains in permanent "fight or flight" mode. What scientists often refer to as "toxic stress" has damaging long-term effects on learning, behavior, and health. Very young children are especially vulnerable.

The same message was echoed in testimony today at the RWJF Commission to Build a Healthier America convening in Washington, D.C., where panelists like Jack Shonkoff of the Harvard Center for the Developing Child emphasized the need for early childhood interventions that focus on building the capabilities of parents to protect their children from high levels of violence and stress, and model resilience. 

Continuing to develop our understanding of the connection between ACEs and poor health and other social outcomes, and supporting interventions like Child First, Nurse-Family Partnership, and other efforts that work to stabilize fragile families and put children on the path to healthy development  will help shape RWJF’s ongoing efforts to foster a vibrant culture of health in communities nationwide.

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