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November is National Child Mental Health Awareness Month: Why Early Childhood Matters to All of Us

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 child's brainconsciousness. 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.

The 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.

Harvard studyAlthough 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 services and supports. These services currently include a team of Early Childhood Family Mental Health (ECFMH) clinicians who provide in-home clinical and consultation supports to families with children ages 0-6. The focus of the ECFMH programs is to promote social-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 Child Program which offers therapeutic child care services for infants and toddlers at risk and their families. These services are based upon a Strengthening Families approach designed to help families build five important Protective Factors:

Both the ECFMH and New Leaf Child Programs of Washington County Mental Health offer access to:

cute babyFor Every $1 Invested…

Three of the most rigorous long-term studies found a range of returns between $3 and $17 for every $1 invested in quality early education programs for low-income children. 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.”, 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.

Let's Grow Kids Week!

Beginning on Monday, November 10, 2014, Let's Grow Kids week is a week-long series of specific, daily action steps meant to draw large-scale attention to the importance of early childhood. The beauty of this week is that every action step is very simple to take, but when performed along with thousands of other Vermonters on the same day, creates a huge, statewide splash! 

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

For more information about the Early Childhood Programs at Washington County Mental Health Services, please call us at (802) 229-0591.


Written 11/2014


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