• July/August 2014
  • Vol. 15, No. 7

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Services and Supports That Reduce Toxic Stress

Research shows that when young children experience severe and ongoing stress, their bodies' stress response systems stay on high alert and can trigger toxic stress. Without appropriate interventions, including consistent support from caring adults, the ongoing toxic stress can weaken the architecture of children’s developing brains and organ systems and causing a host of health, learning, and behavioral problems into adulthood.
In "Pushing Toward Breakthroughs: Using Innovative Practice to Address Toxic Stress," an article published by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, author Carol Gerwin looks at three programs addressing toxic stress. These programs have applied a basic understanding about the long-term, damaging effects of toxic stress in developing innovative approaches that target its root causes of family dysfunction to deliver more effective interventions for both children and their caregivers.

For example, a national early childhood education company is developing and testing best practices to change the culture of Head Start programs to help stabilize families and prevent the common crises that come from poverty. Instead of just responding to client families' emergencies, such as running out of food, losing employment, or being evicted, the agency has shifted its emphasis to creating stable, predictable family practices by strengthening those that show links to school readiness, such as providing a language-rich environment, using positive discipline strategies, and establishing family routines. Helping families plan activities like reading together every night, eating meals together every day, and setting routines like regular bedtimes can help children develop the ability to regulate their emotions and be ready to learn.

A second example is a network of agencies in the Los Angeles area providing free in-home mental health care and related services to help ensure secure attachments between children and their parents. The author’s final example involves a regional faith-based organization in Salem, OR, that is building both parents' capabilities and neighborhood resources to support families.

"Pushing Toward Breakthroughs: Using Innovative Practice to Address Toxic Stress" is one in a multipart series on toxic stress being offered by the Center on the Developing Child. The article and links to other resources are available on the Center's website:


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