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Brain Development and the Impact of Adversity

In the first few years of life, a baby’s brain forms an incredible 700 new brain cell connections every single second. While these connections are formed in a prescribed order with the timing ruled by genetics, it is each baby’s early life experiences and relationships that will determine whether those brain cell connections are strong or weak.

Since our brains develop from the bottom up and from the inside out, healthy development of the top depends upon healthy development of the bottom. The top, where we do all of our thinking, is the most changeable, but when young children have developmental experiences of threat or exposure to adverse events such as domestic violence, chronic poverty, homelessness, parental substance abuse or parental mental illness, the lower, most basic parts of the brain will be impacted and will be harder to change as they grow older.

Young children who experience trauma are at particular risk because their rapidly developing brains are so vulnerable. Early childhood trauma has been associated with reduced size of the brain cortex which is responsible for many complex functions including memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thinking, language, and consciousness. These changes can affect IQ and the ability to regulate emotions, so the child can literally become stuck in a fearful state of fight or flight.

trauma and brain developmentThe image to the right illustrates the negative impact of neglect on the developing brain. The CT scan on the left is an image from a healthy 3-year-old with an average head size. The image on the right is from a 3-year-old suffering from severe sensory-deprivation neglect. This child's brain is significantly smaller than average and has abnormal development of the cortex. These images are from studies conducted by a team of researchers from the Child Trauma Academy led by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

As the number of adverse childhood experiences mounts, so does the risk of developmental delays, serious mental health problems, learning impairments, and long-term physical illnesses. The image below is from the “InBrief Series: The Impact of Early Adversity on the Developing Child,” presented by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

adversity and developmentAlthough adverse childhood experiences increase these risks, children who experience serious threats to their psychological health, such as those who are physically abused, chronically neglected, or emotionally traumatized, do not inevitably develop significant mental illnesses.

These children can be protected through the early identification of their emotional needs and the provision of appropriate assistance in the context of stable, nurturing relationships with supportive and skilled caregivers, as well as through preventive mental health services.

Services and Supports

Washington County Mental Health services has a long history of providing Early Childhood and Family services and supports.  These services include a team of Master Level Mental Health Clinicians, case managers, and Doula’s.  For more description of these programs please see the WCMHS website. The focus of the ECFMH programs is to promote social and emotional wellness, to prevent the development of early childhood mental health disorders and to treat existing early childhood disorders in effort to help children and families return to healthy development and behavior. 

WCMHS also operates the New Leaf Family Center which offers therapeutic child care services for infants and toddlers at risk and their families.  These services are based upon a national initiative called Strengthening Families,  https://www.cssp.org/young-children-their-families/strengtheningfamilies/about.  This approach is designed to help families build five protective factors; Parent resilience, Social connections, Knowledge of parenting and child development, Concrete supports in times of need, and Social and emotional competence of children.

There are two new initiatives happening within ECFMH, Parent Child Interactive Therapy (PCIT) and an ACES pilot project. 

PCIT  is an evidence-based treatment designed to improve the relationship between a caregiver and his/her child.

The goals for PCIT are:

• Enhancing the relationship that you have with your child

• Improving your child's self-esteem

• Teach your child new ways to manage and reduce their frustration and anger

• Help your child develop new strategies for attending and focusing on his or her work or play

• Help your child mind you the first time you tell him or her to do something

• Teach the parent alternative ways to manage their child's behavior now, and help the parent to problem solve ways to effectively manage their child's behavior in the future

Additional information about the PCIT treatment model can be found at www.pcit.org

The ACES pilot project is a partnership between WCMHS, the Family Center of Washington County (FCWC), and Associates and Pediatrics (Berlin).  While families are at their well child checks they will be given the ACES screening.  If they would like to meet with a family support staff provided by WCMHS or FCWC they will have that opportunity while still at the office where they can  learn about community supports.  The goal is to support families with a high ACES screen score to identify their struggles and goals and connect them to the right people in the community to achieve their goals.  The family support staff will be able to meet with the family several times as a follow up, help make phone calls, and provide referrals.

Food for Thought

Three of the most rigorous long-term studies found a range of returns between $3-$17 for every $1 invested in quality early education programs.  Program participants followed into adulthood benefited from increased earnings while the public saw returns in the form of reduced special education, welfare and crime costs, and increased tax revenues from program participants later in life. “Early childhood education is an efficient and effective investment for economic and workforce development. The earlier the investment, the greater the return on investment.” states James Heckman, www.heckmanequation.org.

How You Can Help!

Let's Grow Kids, a statewide public education campaign, aims to raise understanding of the importance of the earliest years in the lives of Vermont's children. Funded by a collaboration of private foundations, Let's Grow Kids is working with Vermont communities, organizations, businesses and individuals to create positive lasting change that will allow all of our children to succeed in life.

For more information about the Let’s Grow Kids Campaign, please visit: http://www.letsgrowkids.org/.

For more information regarding any of the ECFMH programs please do not hesitate to call 476-1480 and speak with Tabitha McGlynn.  If you or your family know you would like one of the services listed above and do not have any questions please call 229-0591 to set up a referral to one of these programs.



Written 10/17






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