Tackling Toxic Stress

How can families in the most difficult circumstances be supported to give children the best chance to succeed? Federal administrators of the Early Head Start program for young children and families think addressing the sources of toxic stress could be part of the answer, according to a multi-part series of journalistic articles, “Tackling Toxic Stress,” produced by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

The Early Head Start research effort to find more effective ways to enhance child development is detailed in the article, “Innovating in Early Head Start: Can Reducing Toxic Stress Improve Outcomes for Young Children?”  The Center’s ongoing series examines how policymakers, researchers, and practitioners in the early childhood field are re-thinking services for children and families based on the science of early childhood development and an understanding of the consequences of adverse early experiences and toxic stress.

According to the series, federal child welfare officials are also seizing on the science of early childhood development, including toxic stress, to help states integrate social and emotional well-being into child welfare's longstanding emphasis on ensuring safety and permanent placements for children who may be experiencing abuse or neglect. (Read more about the flexibility officials are giving public and private entities in order to generate lessons for the field in “Using Science to Drive New Approaches to Child Welfare.”)  Among those states that have garnered federal approval for new child welfare demonstration projects, Illinois is trying to improve foster care, and Washington state is designing an entirely new approach for about half of its 30,000 annual allegations of abuse or neglect.

In a related effort detailed in the series, the American Academy of Pediatrics has made early brain and child development a strategic priority and is working to help its 60,000 physician members consider children’s risks for toxic stress when doing routine pediatric checkups. (Read more in “Pediatricians Take On Toxic Stress” and “Listening to a Baby's Brain: Changing the Pediatric Checkup to Reduce Toxic Stress.”)

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child  created the categories of positive, tolerable, and toxic stress to help describe the body's stress response and its varied effects on health, learning, and behavior. The Council is an initiative of the Center on the Developing Child.

Millicent Lawton, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University  (October 21, 2013)