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Harvard EdCast: Childhood Adversity's Lasting Effect

Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris discusses how childhood adversity creates toxic stress that can impact long-term health and how early intervention can significantly alter children's futures.

Nadine Burke HarrisBehavioral issues. Learning difficuties. Attention problems. Asthma. These are issues that teachers see in their students every day. All are conditions on their own, but could they also be a symptom of a greater problem? Perhaps, says Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician whose work has shown the links between childhood adversity and harmful effects to long-term health. It is possible, she says, that these issues could be symptomatic of a disregulated stress response resulting from high doses of adversity; in other words, toxic stress.

And teachers should be paying attention.

“Many young people who are exhibiting symptoms of toxic stress," says Burke Harris, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, "right now are being met with school discipline that is harsh and punitive instead of there being an understanding of their biology, of these behaviors being a symptom of an underlying biological problem and getting the appropriate support.”

Exposure to toxic stress actual alters one's neurobiology, explains Burke Harris, and it is important that educators be informed about the science that is contributing to their students' issues. This science will arm them with the tools to be able to respond differently, she says, and work to tailor solutions to the actual problems — and to recognize the symptoms early on.

"The most important opportunity is with early intervention, but in order to do that, we have to understand that this is the problem in the first place,” she says.

In this edition of the Harvard EdCast, Burke Harris shares how childhood adversity creates toxic stress that can impact health long term, and explains how intervention and response through collaborative efforts can significantly alter children's futures.

About the Harvard EdCast

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly series of podcasts, available on the Harvard University iTunes U page, that features a 15-20 minute conversation with thought leaders in the field of education from across the country and around the world. Hosted by Matt Weber and co-produced by Jill Anderson, the Harvard EdCast is a space for educational discourse and openness, focusing on the myriad issues and current events related to the field.