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Mel Gravely

What is Toxic Stress and How Does it Affect Children in Head Start?

preschool_bullyingWe often hear studies on the nightly news about how stress affects the health of adults, leading to an increase in heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions. Until recently, less research has been available on how stress affects children. But the field is growing. The U.S. Administration for Children and Families has launched a series of studies on “more effective ways to enhance child development in the nation’s poorest families,” focusing in a large part on the causes of toxic stress.

The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child defines toxic stress as
“Prolonged activation of stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships.”

Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.

As educators and parents, it is important for us to recognize the warning sizes of a child experiencing toxic stress and to provide the supportive relationships required to help alleviate that stress. According to the Office of Head Start, early Head Start caregivers, teachers, and parents are central in the lives of infants and toddlers who have experienced toxic stress. OHS has even produced an educational webinar on the topic, in which experts discuss the impact of trauma and toxic stress on brain and social-emotional growth, as well as strategies for adults to use in supporting young children to minimize their toxic stress.

Children in Head Start programs may be more likely to experience toxic stress as a result of poverty. Food insecurity, unstable family relationships, mental and physical abuse, or bullying can all produce toxic stress in children. Experts are warning that if we don’t take steps to mitigate stress in children, it could have dire consequences for those children and their futures.

If a child is experiencing consistent and prolonged levels of stress, they most likely won’t be able to fully benefit from everything the Head Start program offers within the whole child philosophy. In other words, we must deal with the causes of toxic stress first in order to help the child be successful in Head Start and beyond.

Does your Head Start program have training on how to recognize children experiencing toxic stress? What are your plans for supporting those children? How are you engaging parents? Leave your comments below!

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