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Askwith Essentials: Protecting Brains, Stimulating Minds

At the Askwith Forums, Jack Shonkoff looked at the biology of adversity and how the science of early learning is essential for building a strong foundation.

This event will be live-streamed beginning at 5:30 p.m.

What is toxic stress and why does it matter?

According to the Center on the Developing Child, “extensive research on the biology of stress now shows that healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and brain.” If the stress responses are activated and the child is without adequate support from an adult who can act as a buffer and help soothe the response, toxic stress can result.

Stress responses include increases in:

  • heart rate
  • blood pressure
  • stress hormones, such as cortisol

Toxic stress can result when a child has been exposed to extended or repeated:

  • physical or emotional abuse
  • neglect
  • violence
  • conflict
  • a family member’s substance abuse or mental health issues

Professor Jack Shonkoff, physician and director of the Center on the Developing Child, writes and speaks extensively about the lasting effects of early exposure to toxic stress. Prolonged exposure can actually alter children’s brain architecture, potentially affecting the ways in which they learn and relate to others, as well as their long-term health.

The good news, is that toxic stress can be reduced and even eliminated if children are given a sense of safety and support from the adults around them, while helping these children gain resilience in the face of adversity. “Resilience depends on supportive, responsive relationships and mastering a set of capabilities that can help us respond and adapt to adversity in healthy ways,” says Shonkoff.  “It’s those capacities and relationships that can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress.”

What we should be asking is, how can we develop interventions in early childhood that will lead to more positive outcomes for children. “What’s exciting about the biology is it takes it out of the political realm and asks us how it is that poverty and maltreatment result in problems later and how we could prevent that. It offers more ideas for new solutions and new approaches, rather than just the same old political arguments,” Shonkoff told the Boston Globe. “Everybody wins if we prevent toxic stress in young children, and everybody loses if we don’t.”

Event details:

Monday, April 2, 5:30-7 p.m.
Longfellow Hall
13 Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138