Neuroscience research has repeatedly confirmed that exposure to toxic stress—inescapable, traumatic experiences, such as chronic abuse or neglect—disrupt the development of healthy stress response systems in the brain and can lead to serious long-term consequences for children. (See this excellent series from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child for more information.)
Tragically, many children in the Head Start program have been exposed to these extremely disruptive experiences. (Let’s prevent it altogether—Early Head Start may help!) Because of this, Head Start is getting better at recognizing and addressing the needs of traumatized children. Last week in the New York Times Fixes blog, David Bornstein wrote about the Head Start Trauma Smart program, which gives individual therapy to children and teaches Head Start staff—all of them, including bus drivers—how to recognize and respond to behaviors that stem from trauma.
An evaluation of the Trauma Smart program showed that CLASS scores have increased in nearly every dimension as teachers learn how to identify and respond sensitively to children’s needs. This is great news for the children in need of individualized support, but also great for all of the children in those classrooms, who benefit from having teachers who are warm, responsive, and skilled at getting the most out of class time.
This work also underscores how fundamental effective interactions are. Much of the research that led to how we understand Emotional Support, in particular, stems from attachment theory. Attachment theory put forth the idea that early relationships help children form an internal working model of how relationships work. These internal working models influence how children approach relationships throughout the lifespan. When early relationships are warm, trusting, and predictable, children learn to expect the same from future relationships. This allows them to form friendships and trusting relationships later in life. With children spending more and more time in child care, teachers have become important attachment figures for many children, in addition to their parents and other close family members.
And for children who have experienced trauma—often relating to, or damaging, close family relationships—teachers are an even more critical piece. Traumatized children need to re-learn trust in the world around them, that they can rely on adults to care for, love, and protect them. What an opportunity for caring teachers to provide a predictable, safe, and stimulating environment.
In the wake of the widespread civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd, the national conversation about the inequities in the educational opportunities provided white students and students of color has been amplified. Due to racial and socioeconomic segregation, Black students, and other students of color, are more likely to attend poorly funded schools. EdBuild, a non-profit focused on fair and equitable school funding, reports that high poverty school districts that predominantly enroll children of color receive on average, $1,600 less per student than the national average. By their calculations, there is a $23,000,000,000 gap between funding for schools that primarily serve high poverty Black students and those that predominantly serve white students. Schools that predominantly serve high poverty white students, only receive $1440 less per student (EdBuild, 2019).
A few years into teaching early childhood, I applied to work at a school that does incredible work in the local community. I was thrilled to get an interview but realized very quickly that, even though the environment was supportive and the students were wonderful young people, I was much too intimidated to work there.
Image: Edward Zigler, assisted by Marilyn M. Smith, presents the first CDA Credential to Margaret E. Wright on July 24, 1975, in Washington, DC (Source - Council for Professional Recognition).
For 54 years, Head Start has prepared children for Kindergarten by providing services that foster growth in their physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. In the words of former President Obama, “For millions of families, Head Start has been a lifeline. And for millions of kids, it’s been the start of a better life.”
Decades of evidence indicate that high-quality early childhood education positively affects children. Yet studies reveal that too few programs implement high-quality programming. To date, improvement efforts have primarily focused on what occurs within the classroom. The Ounce of Prevention Fund (Ounce), in partnership with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium), strives to broaden the focus of improvement efforts beyond the classroom to organizational conditions that support teachers and the relationships among staff, children, and families.