This piece originally appeared in the Kansas Child summer 2022 issue. David Jordan is president and CEO of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund.
It’s true what they say: children don’t come with an instruction manual. These days, many families are struggling to feel successful raising their children while also coping with the many demands and challenges of modern life.
Toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are major influences on a child’s overall development — affecting school readiness, student success, physical and mental health, and other factors, including the ability to exercise self-control. ACEs include abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, mental health or substance use problems in the household, and instability in the household, such as separated parents, among other experiences.
ACEs are incredibly common. According to the CDC, approximately 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported that they had experienced at least one ACE, while 1 in 6 had experienced at least four. In Kansas, 39% of children have experienced an ACE, and 20% have experienced two or more ACEs.
The first step toward addressing toxic stress and supporting children’s physical health and social-emotional development is to screen early and regularly. Performing a developmental screening when a child first enrolls in early care and education can identify potential risk factors or barriers to success. In many cases, when these concerns are identified and addressed early, the interventions are less intrusive, and children reach developmental milestones more quickly.
Programs and Interventions
Caring and responsive relationships are critical for every child’s healthy development. A number of programs and interventions, including evidence-based home visiting models within the state, nurture caring relationships and positive childhood experiences.
For example, evidence-based early literacy programs promote stronger caregiver-child relationships. Programs like Reach Out and Read (ROR) engage parents, children, and health care providers. ROR’s Perry Klass notes that by reading to young children, parents and educators are teaching responsiveness and cultivating routines and structures that will help children feel safe. These relationships and routines will stimulate healthy brain development and foster a love of reading, leading to improved language skills and health outcomes.
For kids with significant needs, caring and responsive relationships mitigate the effects of toxic stress. Research shows that infants and toddlers who have experienced adversity can benefit from early intervention that focuses on building supportive adult relationships.
One strategy to counteract early adversity is the evidence-based Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC) program. Over the course of the 10-week program, parents increase their knowledge and skills in order to create secure attachments and help their children have better outcomes. While babies cannot verbalize their needs, parents can learn to recognize and respond to their child’s cues, which leads to strong and healthy relationships.
Through support for evidence‐based early childhood development programs, we can ensure that the youngest Kansans enjoy nurturing family environments that prepare them for healthy lives and academic success. Investing in proven early childhood interventions as a state will result in a more capable workforce, reduced health care and mortality costs, and reduced demand for public services. Kansas’ future depends on the children we invest in today.
Child Care Providers & Infant Mental Health
No one can say that caring for infants is simple work. Understanding infants and toddlers and making sure they receive appropriate behavioral health support is difficult.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as many as 1 in 10 preschoolers are affected by emotional, relationship, and behavioral problems. A young child’s misbehavior may be due to mental health concerns. Ensuring that children receive age-appropriate support as early as possible is important for their future health and school readiness.
How can child care providers promote good mental health?
• Connect parents to local resources, such as early childhood development centers that specialize in home visiting and building parents’ caregiving confidence and skills.
• Provide age-appropriate screenings for children in your care. If you are not currently using screenings, you can attend ASQ trainings through the Kansas Technical Assistance System Network (TASN).
• Advocate for statewide policy changes that would benefit infant mental health, such as increased consultation services and the use of the DC: 0-5 diagnostic classification tool.