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Early Stress Gets Under the Skin: Promising Initiatives to Help Children Facing Chronic Adversity

NCJ Number
Ross A. Thompson; Ron Haskins
Date Published
7 pages
After reviewing recent research that shows chronic stress in childhood is linked to debilitating alterations in the brain that adversely affect a child's ability to learn and manage his/her behaviors, this policy brief identifies features of programs that can counter these effects of chronic childhood stress.
Many children experience adversity such as poverty, abuse or neglect, homelessness, and violence in the home or community. Recent research has found that chronic exposure to physical and emotional stress in childhood can impair brain areas that affect attention, memory, and thinking. The details of these effects are discussed. Promising programs and recommendations that address chronic childhood stress are then described. One example is a 10-week program for infants and toddlers that help foster parents respond better to infants' needs and communications, improve the quality of affectionate behavior, and support children's self-regulation. The programs described have succeeded in normalizing the dysfunctional patterns of cortisol reactivity the children manifested when they entered the programs. A central feature of the programs is sensitive relational support from adults. The authors also argue that State and Federal policy should address this issue by promoting accessibility to quality preschool programs and home-visitation programs that continue through early childhood. Anti-poverty programs are also important in reducing the stress of chronic poverty. The key to making these interventions work for seriously disadvantaged children will be finding ways to train and pay for professionals who can provide sensitive care-giving or teach parents and foster parents to provide it. 10 listings for additional reading