In sharing the Help Me Grow story with diverse audiences, we always acknowledge the influence of the explosion in knowledge of early brain and child development during the 1990s, the so-called “Decade of the Brain.”
Indeed, key concepts in early brain development and early child development yield profound implications for our services, programs, and systems as we strive to promote children’s optimal healthy development.
A recent symposium at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Washington, D.C., offered compelling and impressive new evidence on the extent to which the biological embedding of early childhood adversity can have deleterious and even catastrophic effects on children’s development and well-being.
The session, organized and moderated by Lee Pachter, was entitled “Psychosocial Stress and Physiological Dysregulation: The Biological Embedding of Early Childhood Adversity.”
Bruce McEwen addressed how stress and adversity result in dysregulation of the developing brain and brain plasticity and elevate the risk of disease and disorders through “wear and tear” on the body’s innate control systems.
Megan Gunnar spoke about the impact of adversity and toxic psychosocial stress on regulation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary axis (HPA), a major part of the neuroendocrine system that controls reactions to stress and regulates many body processes.
Thomas Boyce presented a fascinating, cutting-edge treatise on the effects of adversity and stress on epigenetics, the study of gene expression.
Common themes across the research presentations included the critical influence of social determinants of healthy development, the enormous extent to which early experiences affect health and learning, and the protection and enrichment required to promote healthy development.
The final speaker, Jack Shonkoff, spoke about translating the biology of adversity into more effective policy and practice. His clear and emphatic message emphasized that protection and enrichment requires capacity building for adults; that improved parenting skills enhance employability and economic stability; and that strong communities reduce the burden of adversity.
As Help Me Grow evolves and expands, it continues to reflect the evolving science of early brain and child development.
In particular, Help Me Grow supports capacity building for adults as it strengthens the protective factors so key to promoting child development and in building parental resilience, social connections, concrete support in times of need, and parents’ knowledge of parenting and child development. Through outreach and system building, Help Me Grow strengthens communities and the effectiveness of their resources.
Our greater understanding of the biological impact of childhood stress only reinforces the importance of our collective efforts to reduce the burden of early adversity.