A Caring Relationship Connections Buffer Stress and Build Healthy Brains Emotion and relationships play fundamental roles in shaping the brain’s development from birth. Young children build their brains through “serve and return” interactions. When an infant cries, babbles, or gestures and an adult responds in a caring way, the brain creates connections. Throughout the first five years of a child’s life, each positive interaction strengthens these connections. They support the development of communication and social skills. Without POSITIVE interactions a child's brain is not stimulated to develop fully.
As children age they experience stress. Supportive relationships and guidance help them cope with stress. An early educator can be that meaningful source of positive response, support and comfort each day. This is a particularly significant role in the life of a child experiencing stress at home.
A relationship can be built by taking a few minutes to speak or play with a child each day. Greeting a child by name with a genuine smile or wave can be very powerful. As time goes on an early educator might become that ONE SPECIAL PERSON who makes life a little bit easier, who helps the child feel safe and loved even in the most stressful times.
Stress is not just for adults who have a hard day at work. It occurs any time there is the body and/or mind’s attempt to defend itself from that threat. There are three types of ways that children can experience stress:
Positive Stress describes every day stress responses that are moderate and short lived. These responses can happen when a child meets new people or struggles to learn a new skill. Stress is a normal, necessary part of children’s lives when they have stable, loving relationships with adults. Adults can help children build and use the skills they need to deal with negative emotions.
Tolerable Stress occurs when a child has extreme stress responses that can cause disruptive behavior. Events like an injury, death or illness of a loved one, or parents getting divorced are examples of tolerable stress. Generally this stress fades over time. Supportive relationships buffer tolerable stress and help a child cope.
Toxic Stress responses occur when a child experiences prolonged physical and/or psychological threats to his or her wellbeing in the absence of a stable, caring adult who can lessen the impact. Things that could cause this level of stress are abuse, neglect, exposure to violence in the family, or extreme poverty in which survival needs are not met. Toxic stress affects the child's health and development, including brain development.
As early educators, you cannot fix everything for children living with toxic stress. But, while the children are in your care, you can be someone these children feel safe with.
Students who are loved at home, come to school to learn, and students who aren't, come to school to be loved. -Nicholas A. Ferroni
Toxic Stress is a level of stress that is intense, frequent or takes place over a long period of time. For young children toxic stress is particularly harmful. Their developing brains are in the process of building what is called brain architecture, the ability of neurons to make connections. Toxic stress can impair the brain’s physical growth and make it more difficult for the neurons to make corrections. It might lead to permanent emotional or development damage. Health problems that might occur later in life include anxiety, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
The first step in helping children who live with toxic stress is recognizing and understanding what they are going through. Potential causes of toxic stress include extreme poverty, abuse, chronic neglect, parental depression or substance abuse, and family violence. Studies show that preschoolers from low-income families are more likely to have abnormal cortisol patterns. Poverty and high stress levels are sometimes linked to a harsh, demanding parenting style, which causes more stress in a child's life.
Closely watch children known to be dealing with one or more stressors, or other difficult circumstances, for symptoms of toxic stress. These children are likely to be extremely irritable.
The stress response system in their brains may react to daily conflicts as major threats. Something that may seem totally normal to a child with average levels of stress may frighten or anger one suffering from toxic stress. In addition, toxic stress may impair brain structures responsible for attention, self-control, and memory formation. This can affect the child’s ability to learn and to self-regulate behavior. Such prolonged stress can compromise a child’s immune system, sometimes permanently.
Early educators may be unaware that a child who is struggling and/or creating problems could have toxic stress in his or her life. Talking with the families about what is observed at child care could encourage them to share some of what is happening at home.
Early educators can reduce toxic stress for a child by providing structure, protection, comfort, and coaching.
To create a sense of wellbeing and reduce stress, structure children’s days around goals and purposes, such as learning about new things, making friends, being healthy and safe.
Routines and Rituals
Routines help children stay calm and build mental strength because they can predict what will happen next. This is especially helpful for children who live with toxic stress and may not have any predictable structure at home. Daily routines should be built around three basic, biological elements of a healthy life style: Sleep, Activity and Nutrition.
Follow a schedule each day that includes time for active play, naps, meals and snacks. Continue to use routines that work well. Change routines only if they no longer work or developmental needs have changed. For example if the children are tired during the time scheduled for physically active play, schedule outdoor play early in the day and after nap.
Establish rituals with a group and with individual children. A ritual is something done repeatedly in a particular situation in the same way each time. For example a preschool class might sing a certain song every morning or always shake hands before leaving. Bonding rituals like these can help build strong, healthy relationships.
29th Developmentally Appropriate Behavior: Renae Beeker 6:30-8:30 PM $5
But I Am Suppose To Act Like This
5th ITS-SIDS Jessica Wall 6:30-8:30 PM $5
14th CPR/First Aid Nick Hawks 9:00 AM—until $varies
12th Handwriting Without Tears James Fennell 6:30-8:30 PM $5
24th Make-It/Take-It Regina Baity 6:30-8:30 PM $5
PROTECTION and COMFORT
Child care should be a safe space for children, especially those experiencing stress. Early educators help establish this sense of safety by getting to know each child. They can learn to recognize each child's danger signals and provide unique safety signals.
Danger signals alert the primitive brain to a threat. They shut down higher level thought processes so that children are no longer responsive to rules and limits. For some children sensing negative emotion from adults can be a danger signal. When danger signals “set off” stress responses, children need to feel protected and safe, with a sense of calm.
Safety signals have the opposite effect on the brain as danger signals. They help slow down or prevent stress responses. A safety signal could be a friendly touch, a hug, a smile, or a favorite toy. Children recognize positive tones of voice as well as negative ones. A calm, even tone voice and other forms of communication can act as safety signals.
When caring for children with stress, provide comfort often, even when they do not seek it or seem upset. Be aware that expressions of annoyance or anger can easily trigger stress responses. Offer a child with toxic stress special support throughout the day. This can be as simple as a pat on the shoulder or expressions of encouragement, like “You built such a tall tower in the block area!”
Early educators can work with children to solve problems rather than tell them what to do and not to do. Adults have fully developed brains, which they can “loan” to children to help them understand and cope with emotionally difficult situations. Emotions like fear are often at the root of aggressive behavior. The frontal cortex, which is the center for controlling emotions in the brain, grows most rapidly between eight months and five years of age. This growth is influenced by positive guidance from caring adults.
Stories are another way to coach children and help them make sense of what they feel. Stories can give children a sense of order, meaning and hope. If children understand events in their lives as stories, they learn that there is a beginning, a middle and an end. If they are in the middle of a real life story, things could get better, sometimes based on children’s actions.
Read picture books about related situations. Talk about stories together. Act out stories with dolls or puppets. Early educators can write down children’s words as the children tell stories about their day. Children can then add illustrations.
Helping with toxic stress starts with simple acts of kindness. Early educators can help change children’s lives by showing that they care. Even under stressful conditions, supportive, responsive relationships with a caring person, ONE SPECIAL PERSON, as early in life as possible, can prevent or reverse damaging effects of toxic stress.
PROVIDER NEWSFLASH: One special person in a child’s life can help prevent the damaging effects of stress.
We would like to thank all of you for what you do. You make such a difference in the lives of our children. You work hard and get very little, if any, recognition. We just want to say that we appreciate you very much!!! If there is anything we can ever do for you, please let us know.
Wishes that 2015 brings you much joy!
Smart Start of Yadkin Mission Statement: To prepare all children birth to 5 years of age to be healthy and ready for Kindergarten.
*The information in this newsletter was borrowed from the NC Child Care Health and Safety Bulletin Fall 2014, Volume 16, Issue 3