A quiet, unsmiling little girl with big brown eyes crawls inside a carpeted cubicle, hugs a stuffed teddy bear tight, and turns her head away from the noisy classroom.
The safe spaces, quiet times and breathing exercises for her and the other preschoolers at the Verner Center for Early Learning are designed to help kids cope with intense stress so they can learn. But experts hope there’s an even bigger benefit — protecting young bodies and brains from stress so persistent that it becomes toxic.
It’s no secret that growing up in tough circumstances can be hard on kids and lead to behaviour and learning problems. But researchers are discovering something different. Many believe that ongoing stress during early childhood — from grinding poverty, neglect, parents’ substance abuse and other adversity — can smoulder beneath the skin, harming kids’ brains and other body systems. And research suggests that can lead to some of the major causes of death and disease in adulthood, including heart attacks and diabetes.
“The damage that happens to kids from the infectious disease of toxic stress is as severe as the damage from meningitis or polio or pertussis,” says Dr. Tina Hahn, a pediatrician in rural Caro, Michigan. She says her No. 1 goal as a physician is to prevent toxic stress. Hahn routinely questions families about stresses at home, educates them about the risks and helps them find ways to manage.
Mounting research on potential biological dangers of toxic stress is prompting a new public health approach to identifying and treating the effects of poverty, neglect, abuse and other adversity. While some in the medical community dispute that research, pediatricians, mental health specialists, educators and community leaders are increasingly adopting what is called “trauma-informed” care.
The approach starts with the premise that extreme stress or trauma can cause brain changes that may interfere with learning, explain troubling behaviour, and endanger health.