AIMHiTN is dedicated to ensuring that all children have the opportunity to develop intellectually, socially, and emotionally. The future prosperity of any society depends on its ability to foster the health and well-being of the next generation. When Tennessee invests wisely in children and families, the next generation will pay that back through a lifetime of productivity and responsible citizenship.
The early years of life matter because the basic architecture of the human brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Like the construction of a home, the building process begins with laying the foundation, framing the rooms, and wiring the electrical system in a predictable sequence. Early experiences literally shape how the brain gets built, establishing either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all of the development and behavior that follows. A strong foundation in the early years increases the probability of positive outcomes. A weak foundation increases the odds of later difficulties, and getting things right the first time is easier than trying to fix them later.
Science also points us to pay attention to factors that can disrupt the developmental periods that are times of intense brain construction, because when this activity is derailed, it can lead to lifelong difficulties in learning, memory, and cognitive function. Stress is an important factor to consider. Everyday challenges, like learning to get along with new people or in new environments, set off a temporary stress response that helps children be more alert while learning new skills. But truly adverse childhood experiences – severely negative experiences such as the loss of a parent through illness, death or incarceration; abuse or neglect; or witnessing violence or substance abuse – can lead to a toxic stress response in which the body’s stress systems go on “high alert” and stay there. This haywire stress response releases harmful chemicals into the brain that impair cell growth and make it harder for neurons to form healthy connections, damage the brain’s developing architecture, and increase the probability of poor outcomes. This exaggerated stress response also affects health, and is linked to chronic physical diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
Recent science demonstrates that many children’s futures are undermined when stress damages the early developing architecture of the brain. We now know that “toxic stress” in early childhood is associated with adverse childhood experiences, such as poverty, neglect, abuse, or severe maternal depression and damages the developing brain. The damage done from adverse childhood experiences affects the foundation on which future growth must depend for either a strong or weak structure. A strong foundation for children is created when communities prioritize healthy child development and implement early childhood supports, services and interventions to ensure optimal return on investment. A skilled workforce of trained early child providers further supports strong childhood development and a solid foundation leading to children with higher lifelong achievement, better educational outcomes, increased community involvement, and improved lifelong health. This solid foundation also prepares children to become adults who build strong foundations in the next generation.
Science tells us that many children’s futures are undermined when stress damages the early brain architecture. But the good news is that potentially toxic stressors can be made tolerable if children have access to stable, responsive adults – home visitors, child care providers, teachers, coaches, mentors. The presence of good serve-and-return acts as a physical buffer that lessens the biological impact of severe stress.
All children need someone in their corner. The shift from “What is wrong with you, or why are you a problem?” to “What has happened to you, and how we can we support you and help you overcome these experiences?” will result in a more effective, more empathetic service delivery system and a stronger Tennessee.