Harvard releases guide about toxic stress in childhood
The Sector > Quality > Harvard releases guide about toxic stress in childhood

Harvard releases guide about toxic stress in childhood

by Freya Lucas

October 29, 2018

The Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University (CDC Harvard) has shared important information about the role that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have in future outcomes for children – physically, emotionally and mentally – linking ACEs to toxic stress, and outlining ways in which early childhood education and care (ECEC) services can work together to minimise the impact on children.


According to the research, ACEs – which can include physical and emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness, and household violence – have a correlation to the likelihood of an adult suffering heart disease, diabetes, poor academic achievement and substance abuse later in life.


Summarising the research in an infographic, the CDC Harvard have explained the correlation between early childhood adversity and poor outcomes later in life, describing how a build up of stress over time (termed toxic stress) means that  ACES can “get under the skin” and trigger biological reactions in children which lead to poor long-term outcomes.


The research body around toxic stress is not new – eighteen years ago, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child coined the toxic stress phrase, to describe extensive scientific knowledge about the effects of excessive activation of stress response systems on a child’s developing brain, as well as the immune system, metabolic regulatory systems, and cardiovascular system. Experiencing ACEs triggers all of those systems, which interact and impact on the outcome for the child. Children who experience ACEs in isolation, or infrequently, are less likely to be impacted longer term, where a child who experiences multiple ACEs over an extended period of time – especially without supportive relationships with adults – is more likely to have an excessive and long lasting stress response, researchers said.


Adversity also included the presence of violence in the child’s community, and experiences with racism and chronic poverty, with children being unable, at a biological level, to separate threats from outside the home environment from those within the home environment.


Researchers emphasised the importance of children receiving trauma informed care – that is, access to services who understood that problematic behaviour may need to be treated as a result of ACEs or other traumatic experiences someone has had, as opposed to addressing them as wilful or punishable actions. This is an important point of note for all ECEC services, but particularly those working with children who have developmental vulnerabilities, services situated in vulnerable socioeconomic areas, or services who are working with children from refugee backgrounds.


A number of suggestions are put forward by CDC Harvard to support services working with children who have experienced ACEs. These include:


Researchers said that the three principles – reducing stress, building positive relationships, and strengthening life skills – are the best long-term preventative to combat ACEs.

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