Treating children's toxic stress at home
Stable and nurturing relationships are the cornerstone of a child’s emotional well-being and the foundation for their language and cognitive development. Scientific research shows that young children living in environments with high levels of stress—toxic stress—like maternal depression, intimate partner violence, extreme poverty, or substance abuse—can damage their young developing brains. Disrupting brain architecture at such a young age can lead to a lifetime of major problems in emotional, behavioral, mental and physical health.
Child First is an evidence-based model that uses home visits and a network of community services to prevent the devastating effects of early childhood adversity. The model aims to identify children and families with serious challenges (at the earliest possible time) and connect them to well-integrated community-based resources to help them deal with the source of the stress directly: from basic needs like food and housing to issues like depression or intimate partner violence. The program, which began in Bridgeport, Connecticut, is unique among home-visiting models because it features a skilled mental health specialist as a leading part of the team.
A randomized controlled trial showed that Child First has a significant and lasting impact on both children and families. Maternal depression goes way down. Kids behave better and are more emotionally secure. There is improvement in language development among children—a predictor of greater success later in school. These results convinced Connecticut to expand the model throughout the state, and current RWJF funding is helping with this expansion. Over the next year, Child First will also be spreading its model to other states for the first time.