Blog: The Educated Reporter

Early Childhood Ed: Combatting Effects of Toxic Stress

Earlier this month EWA hosted a seminar in New Orleans on early childhood education. We’ll be sharing video and podcasts from the event in the coming weeks. We also asked some of the journalists who attended  to contribute posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Adrienne Lu of the Pew Charitable Trusts. You can also find out more about early childhood education on EWA’s Topics page.

Experiences have powerful impacts on the structure and function of the brain, Charles Zeanah Jr., executive director of the Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health at Tulane University, told reporters gathered in New Orleans for the Education Writers Association conference.

The earliest years of a child’s life, the period when the brain is the most malleable, are critical. And relationships, Zeanah said, are the “active ingredients” of early experiences, which means interventions aimed at improving relationships provide the best chance to help children develop normally.

Zeanah, whose research focuses on parent-infant relationships and their impact on infant development, said infants are born with far more synapses – structures that allow neurons to pass information to other cells – than they need.

This “exuberant overproduction” of synapses, in Zeanah’s words, maximizes the ability of humans to adapt to their environments: synapses that are repeatedly stimulated in early development are preserved while those that are not essentially get pruned away.

Zeanah explained that experience is incorporated into the development of the brain in two ways – experience-expectant development, which triggers normal brain development in the early years for things like vision and hearing; and experience-dependent development, which is based on an individual’s interaction with his or her unique environment.

Brain research shows that the brain is primed for expected input from the environment at specific times, and that if the brain does not receive those inputs, developmental problems may result.

As people age, their capacity for complex thinking grows, but their ability to be open and adapt – or their “plasticity” – declines, which means it is easier and more effective, Zeanah said, to influence a younger child’s brain circuitry than to rewire and older person’s.

Romanian Orphans

Zeanah talked about his research in the early 2000s studying orphans suffering from extreme neglect in Romania. His research indicates that the first two years of life are critical in early brain development: by age eight, children who were removed from institutional settings after the age of two were indistinguishable from children who had been institutions for much longer periods.

Conversely, children who had been removed from the institutional settings before the age of two were indistinguishable for children who had never been placed in institutions.

Zeanah described three kinds of stress and their impacts on brain development: positive stress, which an individual faces and overcomes, resulting in a sense of mastery and control; tolerable stress, defined as adverse life events that are buffered by supportive relationships; and toxic stress, which can include violence or chaos in the home and abuse. Toxic stress can result in problems such as poor self-regulatory behavior, obesity and elevated blood pressure.

In examining preschool children who had been identified by child protective services as having been mistreated, Zeanah described a number of risk factors that are correlated with developmental delays:

• Caregiver mental health problems
• Minority status
• Low caregiver education
• Single caregiver
• Biomedical risk condition
• Poverty
• Teenaged caregiver
• Domestic violence
• Four or more children in the home
• Caregiver substance abuse.
Building Healthy Brains

Infants’ relationships with their parents (or their primary caregivers) are even more important than for older children, Zeanah concluded.

“When we talk about skill readiness, it isn’t just ‘Drill baby, drill,’ Zeanah said, noting that a child’s social competence is the most important predictor of a child’s future success in school.

Zeanah’s research indicates that improving the relationships and interactions between parents and children offers the best hope for helping children.
“Relationship-based interventions provide opportunities for the prevention of adverse outcomes and treatment of distress and disability,” Zeanah said.


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