Mobilizing the Science of Early Childhood Development to Strengthen the Foundations
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Applying Knowledge About How Early Experiences Shape the Developing Brain to Improve Lives
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Young Children in Child Welfare
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Research clarifies needs of children who experience toxic stress
The science is clear: Serious or prolonged stress early in a child's life affects brain development and will create lifelong problems, said Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University.
Dr. Jack Shonkoff
Philip A. Fisher
"Early experiences literally get built into our bodies and affect the circuitry of our brain," the physician and researcher said. "If we don't provide the right kind of experiences early on, it's not just a matter of trying to change behavior, it's a matter of dealing with the legacy of biological changes,'' he warned, adding that the problems are passed down to later generations because they also affect how the child eventually will parent.
But the news is not all bad, said Philip A. Fisher, a senior scientist at the Oregon Social Learning Center and a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. Research has shown which children are at risk and how to help them, he said, emphasizing that the services needed to prevent and mitigate the effects of toxic stress in young foster children are within our financial grasp.
Speaking at the symposium Applying the Science of Early Childhood Development to Child Welfare Policy and Practices in Oregon, the two researchers said that the vital brain connections made early in life-essentially the first four years-are dependent upon interactions with a loving caregiver. In families where there is neglect, violence or other types of distress, the children cannot develop normally, creating a legacy of mental health problems, crime, low achievement and even poor physical health.
"The science is sitting there waiting for us to use it," Shonkoff told the audience of nearly 300 gathered for the August symposium hosted by the Oregon Department of Human Services, Oregon Commission on Children and Families and Oregon Department of Justice. The agencies are partners with Casey Family Programs in their effort to safely and equitably reduce the number of children in foster care and improve the lives of those who remain in care. Teams from 11 counties involved in the effort attended the symposium and also heard from Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and First Lady Cylvia Hayes.
It's well-known that foster children lag behind in just about every indicator of health and well-being, said Fisher, who has acted as a principal investigator on several studies of foster children. But the neurological basis for the problems has only become known in the last decade.
Fisher cited, for example, his own research on how the brain receives corrective messages. The study showed that foster children had diminished brain activity compared to the control group when their behavior was corrected. "The message may not be getting through," he said. "They (foster children) are not just defiant...these are brain deficits." The findings, he added, can help caregivers think differently about what the children need.
When parents fail to provide the interaction necessary for proper brain development, someone needs to step in, said Brenda Jones Harden, associate professor in the Department of Human Development at the University of Maryland.
"I believe strongly in helping families stay together, but I also believe strongly in giving children the opportunities for their development to flourish, and we can't wait until mothers get it together," she said, adding that doesn't always mean removing the child from their homes. "So, I have to find another caregiver-be that grandmother, aunt, Early Head Start, childcare, wherever-to give that child the opportunity to develop the way that they should."
Child welfare workers must be trained to focus on child and parent interactions, she said. And because there are not enough mental health workers to address the problem, she's begun a program to train Early Head Start workers to provide the needed interaction. Foster parents also must be trained and supported in doing the work, she stressed.
With proper supportive services, which can be provided by foster parents and teachers, deficits can be corrected, Fisher said. After just four months of intervention, one study showed, preschool foster children demonstrated a marked increase in brain activity in response to corrective messages.
Fisher also pointed to the need to protect children from toxic stress-such as the stress caused by multiple foster placements. He cited research showing that disruptions were reduced by checking in with foster parents three times a week about issues in the home-which allowed staff to become involved at key times and provide necessary support.
Pressing for prevention and early intervention, Fisher underscored comments by Shonkoff that the brain is always able to adapt-but the difficulty and cost of adaptation increases with age.
Still, he said, the cost is well within our grasp. He cited an economic analysis which showed that it was less expensive to provide foster care with the recommended supportive services. Savings occurred, for example, because fewer disruptions means less staff time-and less money-is spent finding new placements.
Both Fisher and Shonkoff spoke to the need for a sustained and multisystem, multilevel response.
Science has made it clear that healthy development in the early years provides the building blocks for educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, lifelong health, strong communities and parenting of the next generation, said Shonkoff, emphasizing that this is not a personal view or a partisan representation.
"This is the mother of all bipartisan issues-what we do with the science is very partisan," he said. "The science is the science-we cannot wish it away.