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Conference Sketches Permanent Effects of Childhood Stress


700: The number of new neural connections formed every second in the first year of a child’s life.

18 months: The age at which differences in vocabulary appear between children of college-educated parents, and children whose parents did not graduate high school.

90 to 100 percent: The chance of significant developmental delays for a child who experiences risk factors such as poverty, maltreatment, a parent with mental illness or substance abuse problems, hunger, homelessness, or a mother with a low education level.

1 in 3: The odds that a child facing these stressors will later face heart disease.

The fragility of young, rapidly-developing children cannot be understated, said Shelia Evans-Tranumn, Ph.D., on April 18, at the ninth annual Young Child Expo and Conference, co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Education (GSE). Adverse circumstances can interrupt that development severely, and possibly permanently.

“Studies demonstrate that early experience, some even in the womb, have a direct impact on an adult’s life and heath,” said Evans-Tranumn, the former New York State associate commissioner of education. “Even at this early stage… the baby’s brain begins to rewire. The fight-or-flight instinct kicks in even before the child has taken one breath. This wiring may have had evolutionary advantage, but it comes with significant long-term health costs in the modern world.”

Evans-Tranumn presented stark data during her keynote address, “The Impact of Toxic Stress on Young Children and What We can Do About It.” As chairperson for the Casey Family Programs Foundation, an organization aimed at improving the foster care system, Evans-Tranumn is well-versed in the kinds of “toxic stress” that jeopardize the wellbeing of millions of American children.

While certain kinds of stress are normal and even encourage growth, toxic stress is intense and unrelenting, she said. When inflicted on a developing mind, toxic stress can have a concrete affect on the structure of a child’s brain.

“If a child has emotional support from a caring adult, the young brain will recover,” she said. “Toxic stress is different. This occurs when a child experiences strong, frequent, and prolonged adversity, such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse, mental illness in the family, hunger, or homeless, without emotional support from an adult.

“Research on toxic stress illustrates how adversity raises heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones,” she continued. “This poses a threat to brain architecture, immune status, metabolic systems, and cardiovascular function. And all of this has lifelong consequences.”

According to Evans-Tranumn, it is crucial that teachers consider the challenges their students may be facing in order to provide assistance and encouragement—especially since they might be the only supportive adults in their students’ lives.

“Dramatic scientific and medical advancements have deepened our understanding of how healthy brain development happens, how it can be derailed, and what we can do to keep it on track,” she said.

Kicking off the three-day conference, James J. Hennessy, Ph.D., dean of GSE, presented Evans-Tranumn with the Excellence in Early Childhood award for her “extraordinary championship and advocacy for young children and their families.”

Co-sponsored by GSE and Los Niños Services, the annual Young Child Expo and Conference aims to provide information to professionals who work with young children.


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