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ACF Addresses Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress

Mark GreenbergLast week, we added a new section to the ACF website that pulls together resources and information about children and early adversity, and ACF’s work in this area.  We hope you’ll find it helpful, and we’d welcome suggestions for how to strengthen our work in addressing early childhood adversity.

We know that across the country, there’s increasing interest in efforts to pull together the findings from related but sometimes separate bodies of work.  There’s an important set of research findings concerning toxic stress --- the body of research indicating that when a child experiences strong, frequent, or prolonged adversity without adequate adult support, the prolonged stress can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk of disease and cognitive impairment well into the adult years.  Closely related are the bodies of work about the long-term impacts of childhood trauma and of the impacts of multiple adverse childhood experiences.   

What seems clear across these bodies of research is that repeated, sustained adverse experiences in early childhood, particularly without the support of an engaged supportive parent or adult caretaker, can have serious extended effects on children’s subsequent development and success in life.  For us, this points to two important directions: efforts to identify and reduce the stressors that are routinely faced by low-income and other at-risk children, families, and communities, and efforts to strengthen the capacities of parents and caretakers to engage with and support their children’s healthy development.  It seems fundamental that in order to get better outcomes for children, there is a need to engage with and help their parents.

We’re mindful that this work links with ongoing efforts to develop and implement two-generational programs that seek to work with both parents and children, efforts to strengthen attention to parenting and risk and protective factors, and the emerging attention to how strengthening executive function capacities in adults could lead to both better employment outcomes and better child outcomes. 

To be clear, we are not suggesting that the stressors faced by low-income families struggling to meet basic needs or the challenges faced by families living in communities of concentrated poverty can be addressed simply by greater attention to parenting or executive function; at the same time, we do think these bodies of research point to promising directions for helping families attain better child outcomes.

Our Office of Planning Research and Evaluation (OPRE) is  engaged in collaborative research efforts with our program offices to build knowledge for the future --- including the Buffering Toxic Stress Consortium, a set of six cooperative agreements that are evaluating promising  interventions in Early Head Start; and Head Start University Partnerships focusing on Dual-Generation Approaches grantees, which will examine the role that Head Start can play in promoting family well-being, including health, safety, financial security, and school readiness.  Later this summer, OPRE will be issuing a series of reports on the Impact of Toxic Stress on Self-Regulation and Implications for ACF Programs.

While we work to build the research agenda, we are also identifying opportunities for action now across ACF programs.   Among these:

  • The Office of Head Start has hosted webinars and implemented training on trauma, toxic stress and resilience.
  • The Children’s Bureau has funded three cohorts of demonstration grants that focus on  integrating trauma-informed and trauma-focused practice in child protective service delivery; improving access to needs-driven, evidence-based and evidence-informed mental and behavioral health services in child welfare and; promoting well-being and adoption after trauma.  In addition, the President’s FY15 Budget includes a legislative proposal encouraging states to build capacity in evidence-based psychosocial interventions for children exposed to trauma, and to reduce the inappropriate use and over-prescription of psychotropic medications for those children. 
  • Our Family Violence Prevention and Services Program is the primary funder for the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health. The center offers resources, training, and technical assistance related to the intersection of trauma, domestic violence, mental health, and substance abuse and focuses on building the capacity of domestic violence programs to become trauma-informed organizations and offer trauma-focused services for domestic violence survivors and their children.

We’ll continue to build information on our website about ACF’s efforts, and we welcome hearing about state and community efforts that relate to this work.

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