I had the honor this past week of participating in a panel discussion about the importance of early childhood development to healthy communities. Hosted by Healthy States, an initiative of American Public Media and Minnesota Public Radio, the topic of the evening was “Community Responses to Toxic Stress.” As readers may know from our recent report and community engagement work, the subject of early childhood development is near and dear to my heart and a significant focus of Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
My colleague and friend, Dr. Megan Gunnar, of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development presented scientific research on the essential role of a safe and nurturing social environment for healthy brain development. She also described how high levels of environmental stress in infancy and early childhood can lead to enduring problems in learning, physical well-being and social development. We know that birth to age 3 is an incredibly formative time for a developing mind, with 700 new neural connections made every second. But if a child lives in an environment with persistent challenges (toxic stress) such as poverty, poor nutrition and inadequate housing without the buffer of positive caretaking relationships, it prevents those connections from forming in an effective and efficient manner. Experience shapes brain architecture, and a poor early foundation affects development throughout the lifetime.
Panelists MayKao Hang, president and CEO of the Wilder Foundation, and Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of Northside Achievement Zone, and I discussed how our organizations are helping to mitigate toxic stress and foster healthy child development. I left this lively discussion energized to continue Children’s work with community partners to help foster healthy development in children. Some of my thoughts include:
- One way parents and community leaders can help is to encourage consistent monitoring of child development. At each well-child appointment and over time, we screen our young patients for normal development and identify challenges. Early intervention is key and can change the trajectory of a child’s life.
- We can motivate leaders and others to action by educating them about the science of early brain development and the unequaled opportunity for healthy development that is presented during the first few years of life. Behavioral and emotional problems often have their roots in unhealthy conditions (toxic stress) in early, foundational stages of life.
- What babies need is essentially the same across all communities: attentive and loving relationships, safe and stable environments, healthy food and developmentally appropriate activity.
Healthy development happens in the home and in the community through relationships with families, friends and neighbors. We all can play a role in supporting a strong start. Our collective focus must be on healthy development for all children.
Mike Troy, Ph.D., LP, is medical director of Behavioral Health Services at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.