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.